Source: Photo by Alonso Reyes on Unsplash
Depression robs you of the joy of life, and over time, it can crush your spirit. Optimism becomes a thing of the past. It’s hard to imagine feeling so energetic. Confidence recedes, replaced by self-doubt and apathy.
Understandably, this state of mind leads many people to turn to antidepressant medications for relief. Although this group of medications can be a blessing for many, antidepressants also have significant drawbacks. For example, less than 50% of people respond positively to antidepressants within the first eight weeks of starting them, and only 60% within the first three months.1
Even for those who respond favorably, there are common side effects to consider. These symptoms can include weight gain, feeling agitated, insomnia, feeling emotionally numb, and loss of sex drive.
With all these drawbacks in mind, how about a different approach to solving depression that doesn’t have any of these drawbacks and risks? No, not psychotherapy (although that would also be a good option). What about an alternative approach that doesn’t require a prescription, has no side effects, has a wealth of research support, and is free?
Exercise as an antidepressant
The alternative I am referring to is exercise. Research shows that moderate exercise three or four times a week can provide as much help in overcoming depression as antidepressant medications.2
The key is for exercise to be at least moderate in intensity and for your total exercise time each week to be two hours or more. For those who are not used to exercising, this may be daunting at first. But it is not.
We each have 168 hours a week. Spending two or three of those hours exercising is within your reach. This amounts to just over 1 percent of your week. When considering the impact exercise has on your mood and health, spending this time is a bargain.
Some will answer, “But I don’t like to exercise.” There are two answers to this objection.
The first is “so what?” You may not want to brush your teeth but I doubt that prevents you from doing so. There are days when you don’t want to go to work but you still show up. The list is endless. Refusing to engage in something useful just because you don’t enjoy it leads to psychological stagnation.
The second answer to “I don’t like exercise” is to realize that most people who make it part of their weekly routine eventually enjoy it. Even those who don’t will accept it as something they should do and find acceptable.
The key for those who don’t like to exercise is to find something that raises their heart rate in a way that they find at least somewhat rewarding. For some, it will be a quick walk with a friend. For others, it will be swimming, cycling, etc.
If you’re the “I hate exercising” type of person, you might be better off initially simply aiming for 10 minutes of light exercise. Even if your heart rate doesn’t increase much, that’s okay; You are simply building your tolerance for this new activity.
Over time, you will find yourself adapting to the routine and ready to increase the time you spend exercising and the intensity you apply.
What type of exercise is best?
There have been many studies looking into the question of what type of exercise is best for combating depression. The answer remains unclear because many forms of exercise have proven effective.
This means that you have great freedom to choose what suits you. The key to success is to stress your body enough that it requires mental stamina to complete the task.
What makes exercise an effective antidepressant?
Research has not shed much light on the exact mechanisms that make exercise effective as an antidepressant. Neurologically, we know that exercise has an effect on levels of the monoamine neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. These three neurotransmitters are thought to be linked to depression.
But non-neurological factors likely play an equal or greater role in making exercise an effective antidepressant. It is important to understand these non-neurological factors. In order to appreciate the role it might play (no one knows for sure right now), we need to start by looking at some of the common symptoms of depression.
Depressed people struggle to plan their day or take the initiative to complete tasks. Their lives lack structure and direction that would give them a sense of progress and competence. Instead, they suffer from feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem. Lack of sleep is almost always a part of depression, as is a tendency to avoid social contact with others.
Now think about how following an exercise routine can help reverse these trends. An exercise routine provides a schedule, or structure, to the week, which increases a sense of order in one’s life. In turn, a greater sense of control develops when one sticks to an exercise schedule. Instilling a sense of control is an antidote to feeling powerless.
Furthermore, going to the gym increases socialization, if only by being around other motivated people. Exercise also often improves sleep quality, making it easier to regain energy and a brighter mood.
Adhering to an exercise program brings a sense of success and feelings of accomplishment and competence. This may be especially true when someone experiences improvements in strength, endurance, and overall physical performance. Reaping each of these benefits also increases the likelihood that one will have a more positive self-concept.
Antidepressants often play an important role in the treatment of depression, especially when the goal is to achieve rapid relief of depressive symptoms. However, the drawbacks of the drug can be significant and include a high rate of people not responding well, financial costs, side effects, and the necessary reliance on the doctor to write the script.
Furthermore, medications, compared to exercise, do not improve an individual’s physical health, enhance their sense of confidence, or enhance a sense of accomplishment. In fact, it is possible for them to facilitate feelings of dependence on an external agency (medication or doctor), rather than building optimism in their abilities to resist depressive states.
Bottom line: Unless you have significant physical limitationsThere is no excuse not to use exercise as a way to reduce depression and improve mood. Once you start this path and experience the benefits, you will likely be hooked. Your self-confidence, optimism, and health are also likely to improve, and this can act as a buffer against future bouts of depression.
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