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How can physical activity help depression?

It is no secret that maintaining a healthy exercise routine can lead to a healthier and more fulfilling life. Physical exercise and activity allows the body to function properly and operate at its highest levels to maintain your health. While most people associate the benefits of physical exercise with your physiological (or bodily) fitness, it also provides a myriad of important benefits for your mental health as well! Throughout the years, multiple studies have shown that even the lightest of physical movement is crucial to maintaining a balance of mental and physical wellness. This is especially true for people who suffer from certain mental illnesses such as depression. Exercise holds multiple benefits for people with clinical depression, such as releasing f more endorphins, higher levels of socialization, a healthy coping mechanism, and even a bit of distraction. While no one is saying you have to spend all of your free time in the gym, or begin designing an exercise routine that feels inappropriate to your lifestyle, working in a bite of light to moderate physical activity can help to ease the symptoms of depression you may experience.

How does exercise help clinical depression symptoms?

1.     It releases feel-good chemicals

The most scientific reason on this list is probably one that the majority of people are at least vaguely familiar with. It is fairly common knowledge that light-to-moderate physical exercise will boost your “happy” hormones and neurotransmitters such as endorphins, adrenaline, and dopamine. An increase in these hormones that are brought about by physical activity can decrease the day-to-day symptoms of clinical depression and lower the odds of a major depressive episode occurring. The exercise need not be vigorous, even a light jog or walk around your neighborhood or simple body weight exercises at home can be sufficient activity for many people.

A woman does Russian twists with any exercise ball.
Ensuring you get physical exercise each day is important to maintaining your holistic physical and mental wellbeing. Image courtesy of  

2.     It gives you confidence

The phrase “fake it until you make it” is very applicable here! If your depression symptoms manifest themselves through a low physical self-esteem, exercise can be crucial in building your self-confidence! Consistent physical exercise can help you build your physical strength and tone your body, which can in turn boost your self-esteem and improve how you see yourself. If you begin to become more confident (or even pretend to be!) in your physical appearance, it can help to ward off some of your negative thoughts brought about by your depression.

3.     It provides a distraction

Exercise is a great way to distract your mind from whatever negativity is dwelling within. In order to perform physical activity safely, you must remain focused on your form and your surroundings while you do so in order to avoid injury or overextending your muscles. By keeping exercise at the forefront of your mind, you allow yourself to distract your mind from your potentially cynical thoughts and could possibly boost your mood while doing so.

4.     It can come with social benefits

Although this is a trickier element now in the age of COVID-19 and social distancing, physical exercise can oftentimes bring about a positive social aspect. Many people benefit from pairing up with a gym partner in order to hold them accountable for staying on top of their exercise routine. Others may find a new group of friends through their exercise facility or certain types of fitness classes such as Zumba, yoga, or spin classes. But not everyone benefits from a large group of athletic friends, and that is okay! Something as simple as taking a walk around your neighborhood with a trusted friend can be enough to boost your endorphins and keep your depression symptoms at bay.

A woman lifts a small weight at the gym.
There are many benefits for both your bodily and mental/emotional health to gain through consistent physical exercise and activity. Image courtesy of

5.     It helps to regulate your mood

A study performed between researchers at NIH’s National Institute of Health and John Hopkins University showed that there was a positive correlation between mood and exercise in participants with mental health disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. In the study, participants were asked to rate their moods following their periods of exercise. Members of the study reported higher energy levels and a better sleep pattern following their physical activity. This study helps to confirm the prevailing scientific theories about the positive connections between factors such as mood, sleep, physical health, and energy.

What kind of exercise should I be doing?                                                                          

There is no one size fits all approach to exercise routines and plans. The type of exercise you should perform is based on many factors such as current physical health, desired outcomes from the exercise, lifestyle schedule, and availability. If your goal is to become muscular and toned, it is best to join a gym and consult with physical trainers that will know how to best help you. On the other hand, if your goal is just to boost your mood, energy, and productivity, you could probably benefit more so from light physical activity such as brisk walking or yoga. No matter the course you want to take, it is important to consult with your primary care provider before beginning any exercise routine that may be strenuous to you. Most doctors and nurse practitioners recommend at least thirty minutes of physical activity per day, and 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. Fortunately, this is a reasonable goal for most people and can be easily worked into people’s lifestyle until it is simply a normal part of their routine. People with clinical depression may find it difficult to become motivated enough to perform their exercises, but it is also important to be easy on yourself even if you are not reaching your physical fitness goals. In time, the exercise will come more easily and you will begin to see the natural benefits that come with it!