The Role of Exercise in Managing Depression

Depression is a serious, but treatable, mood disorder that affects more than 300 million people worldwide (1). It’s also one of the most common mood disorders in the United States, affecting more than 16 million people, or nearly 7 percent of all adults (2).

What Exactly Is Depression?

Most of us think of depression as a general state of sadness. That’s true, but there’s more to depression than just feeling a bit blue.

Clinical depression is when someone suffers from a depressed mood for at least two weeks with at least five depressive symptoms present. These symptoms vary from person to person, but may include:

  • Feeling sad most of the time;
  • Having a loss of interest in almost all activities;
  • Experiencing significant weight loss, or a change in appetite (either increase or decrease);
  • Having trouble sleeping or getting too much sleep;
  • Feeling restless, agitated or irritable;
  • Feeling especially fatigued or tired;
  • Moving or speaking slowly;
  • Having difficulty focusing, concentrating or completing normal activities;
  • Struggling to go to work or do your work;
  • Feeling hopeless or having suicidal thoughts.

My patients often describe their depression as feeling guilty, hopeless, down in the dumps, or in a funk that they just can’t get out of.

The Aches & Pains of Depression

Often times, when people are depressed, they experience aches, pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems, which bring them into my office.

With clinical depression, there is no physical cause for these aches and pains. However, some medical conditions can mimic symptoms of depression, such as thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies. It’s important to thoroughly discuss your symptoms with your doctor to be sure you get an accurate diagnosis to get the help you need.

Leading Treatments for Depression

While depression can be debilitating, the good news is, it can be treated. Medication and psychotherapy are considered the frontline treatments for depression. Currently there are more than a dozen FDA-approved medications to treat depression, providing patients with a variety of options (4).

Alternative Treatments for Depression

While medication and psychotherapy are currently the gold standard of treatment for depression, the downside is they can be costly and inaccessible to many people. They also can take time to be effective. In some cases, medications may take three months or longer to start working, and psychotherapy takes time, as well.

Fortunately, research continues to identify other strategies that can play a role in lessening the burden of depression. One of these strategies is both immediate and accessible: exercise.

The Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

The benefits of aerobic exercise in reducing the risk of heart disease have been well established. Additionally, research has found that aerobic exercise can help lessen symptoms of depression in both healthy adults and those with chronic illness (5, 6).

The extent to which aerobic exercise helps lessen depression varies from individual to individual. Nonetheless, getting the heart rate up through healthy exercise is an easily accessible option to help boost someone’s mood.

Keep in mind that aerobic exercise doesn’t need to be difficult to be effective. Simply going for a brisk walk can be enough to make a difference. Other forms of aerobic exercise include jogging, swimming, biking, rowing, dancing, and jumping rope.

What About Resistance Training?

While we know that aerobic activities can help with depression, less is known about the role of resistance training. However, a recent study published in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry found that resistance training can play a significant role in reducing depressive symptoms among adults (7).

In the study, researchers looked at data from more than 30 randomized clinical trials involving a total of nearly 2,000 participants. Depending on the study, participants ranged in age from 16 years old to more than 80 years old. In addition to depression, many suffered from additional health problems, including cancer, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritis.

Resistance Training Can Help Alleviate Depression

Based on the data, the researchers found that resistance training was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms, regardless of the person’s age, gender or health status. In general, it appears that depression symptoms were best alleviated among people with mild to moderate depression.

Additionally, resistance training was found to be effective, no matter the intensity of exercise or length of time the training was performed. However, the best results seemed to be when resistance training sessions were less than 45 minutes, compared to longer sessions.

How to Do Resistance Training

Resistance training is any exercise that causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance. The external resistance can be dumbbells, rubber exercise tubing, your own body weight, or even soup cans or water bottles.

Simple body weight exercises, such as push-ups and squats, can be done anytime, anywhere. If resistance training is new to you, you may want to seek out help from a certified personal trainer to learn proper technique.

Final Thoughts

Depression effects many people at different stages of life. If you or someone you love is suffering from depression, it’s important to talk to a medical doctor or mental health professional to develop a treatment plan. While medication and psychotherapy are still considered the frontline treatments for depression, both aerobic exercise and resistance training can be effective ways to lessen depression.

Wishing you health and wellness,
Dr. Zivich