Exercise helps beat depression — that’s not just a theory, but scientific fact.
Many people think exercise involves grueling workouts or exhausting runs.
Sure, for Alasdair Campbell and Tricia Goddard — interviewed in my book, Back From The Brink — cross-country runs and marathons are an important part of their wellness plan and help ward off depression or manage it better if and when it strikes.
But that doesn’t mean the benefits of exercise for beating or preventing depression require you to sign up for the next Ironman competition. After all, mustering up the energy to even get out of bed during our worst moments can be a real struggle.
You’re not alone. Nearly everyone I have spoken to has experienced supreme difficulty exercising while depressed — although not one of these people ever reported feeling worse after a walk.
Exercise need not be intensive or exhausting. A study by Dr. Andrea Dunn found that patients who did the equivalent of 35 minutes’ walking, six days per week, experienced a reduction in their level of depression by 47 percent. This study, conducted at the Cooper Research Institute in Dallas, Texas, shows that as little as three hours of regular exercise a week reduces the symptoms of mild to moderate depression as effectively as Prozac and other antidepressants.
In addition, the proven benefits of exercise in treating or preventing depression extend to even moderate physical activity, such as gardening.
Aerobic exercise, in particular, improves blood flow and oxygen to the brain. It has the added benefit of releasing endorphins (natural feel-good chemicals) into the body.
Moderate physical activity produces risk-free benefits for people with depression. Unlike medication, there are no detrimental side-effects.
3 Forms of Exercise That Aren’t Really Exercise
1. Meet with a friend for a walk.
Socializing can be exhausting even when we’re not depressed. But contact with a friend can be a great source of emotional support and compassion. Meeting a friend for a walk – with or without a dog – can be a great way of combining casual social interaction with moderate physical activity.
If your friend doesn’t know you’re depressed, that’s OK. You’re not obligated to tell them. If they do, that’s OK too. Plus, being out walking can take the edge off any feelings of awkwardness or nervous anxiety, whether talking about depression or any other subject. You’re not exclusively focused on the conversation and person you’re with.
Quick tip: If in the past you’ve tended to make plans, then felt too depressed to go ahead with them, see if your friend can come to your place to meet you. Unless you’re having a particularly bad day, knowing your friend is outside – and a polite but persistent knock on the door – may give you the extra kick to get you out and about.
2. Do some gardening or cleaning.
Interestingly, the longitudinal review of over 26 years of research specifically included gardening as part of the daily moderate physical activity which can have a profound impact on treating and preventing depression.
Have a garden? Get out there and plant some seeds, mow the lawn or get some pruning done. You don’t need to blitz the entire front or back yard in one go, but this activity has the added advantage of being able to see the results of your efforts, which can be a great motivator.
Live in an apartment? Give it a little bit of a spruce. Clean a cupboard, the fridge or your bedroom. It’s all activity, particularly any scrubbing or washing.
3. Take a pet for a walk.
Dogs in particular have a lot of rather infectious energy and need to walk (or run) it off every day. So why not combine the energy and love of a four-legged companion with the relatively moderate effort involved in walking and take a stroll in the park?
Don’t have a dog? Offer to walk a friend or neighbor’s. That way you do your friend a favor and enjoy the benefits of dog-walking as part of your depression treatment strategy without having to worry about the responsibility of looking after the dog when the walk is over.
Anything particularly strenuous in any of that? Didn’t think so, but it still counts as moderate physical activity and can help you feel better and beat or prevent depression if done for 30 minutes each day.
Now, in my previous article on how to exercise when depressed, I emphasized the importance of whisker goals as a way to build up your level of physical activity by starting off in small, manageable chunks.
Even the above suggestions for moderate exercise can be started off in small manageable chunks for just a few minutes each. Don’t try and do too much too quickly, else the anticipation of future exercise which again takes up lots of time and energy may be enough to put you off any more attempts.
Interestingly, the study by Andrea Dunn helps here: it showed that three periods of 10 minutes’ exercise per day can have a similar effect to a single 30-minute block.
So, when you feel ready, consider two or three whisker goals of 10 minutes’ period of exercise each day.
More Tips to Keep You Motivated to Exercise
Incorporate exercise as part of a holistic depression treatment plan. Back From The Brink will explain more about this and show you how to do so quickly and easily. You may wish to enroll in our free 30 day Mood Boost Challenge.
You may want to consider introducing rituals. The more you do something, the more familiar and ‘normal’ it becomes. So by building a routine to follow before, during or after exercise, it becomes easier to do. For example, you could buy a pedometer to measure steps each day (they’re cheap), lay exercise clothes out before going to bed and so on.
When you’re out and about, focus on the present moment and observe plants, animals, flowers and smells. Consider keeping a journal where you or your friend or loved one writes down the highlights. Take photos with a phone and share them on social media – you may find sharing with others to help you too.
Finally, being in the present moment can help you cultivate gratitude and focus on the good things and people you have in your life – something that’s liable to be forgotten amid the heavy fog of negative thoughts that loop in our mind during a period of depression.
For Greg Montgomery, for example, gratitude is a very important part of his efforts to beat and manage depression. In my case, I’m really lucky to live close to the bush. When things get tough for me I find it very helpful to go bushwalking; I never cease to have my breath taken away by the majestic beauty of this incredible part of Australia. Often, gratitude involuntarily arises simply by being amid this natural beauty. For just a few moments I’m distracted from my negative thought cycle, or what’s going on in my head is put into perspective.
Which activities do you do to ensure you get moving each day? I’d love to hear from you, as would many others! Please share in the comments box, on social media, or drop me an e-mail: support at graemecowan.com.au
Graeme Cowan’s book Back From The Brink, brings you true stories from well-known and everyday people, and practical help for overcoming depression and bipolar disorder. Touching, moving and often surprising, the stories in Back From The Brink are living proof that you too can overcome depression, using the tools and resources provided in the book.
Cowan survived the worst depression his psychiatrist had ever treated. Click here to find out more.