Exercise as a prescription for depression has gained a lot of attention in the medical field, in part because a number of preliminary studies are showing that exercise may be a very good way to beat depression. Some preliminary studies suggest that long term results may have equal or greater benefits than prescription medications. Several studies have shown that for many of those who are not responding to medication, there may be improvement when combining exercise with their medication. For those already using antidepressants, adding exercise may result in a better outcome than with medication alone.
Let’s look for a minute at the benefits we receive when we get moving. It’s not so important what kind of exercise we do. It is well known that regular exercise strengthens the musculoskeletal system and along with good nutrition is one of the best ways to maintain good bone density. Getting moving is good for the cardiovascular system, strengthening the heart and moving oxygen throughout the body.
Those who suffer from arthritis are advised to keep moving in ways that gently mobilize the whole body without creating stress on the joints. The high-impact aerobic workouts of a few decades ago have evolved into exercise methods that are much more attuned to good body mechanics.
What has also evolved is a greater understanding of how exercise affects the brain, our endocrine system, and consequently our moods and emotions. Regular exercise improves our memory and our ability to learn, as well as supporting our ability to solve problems. It stimulates the pituitary to release endorphins which reduce stress and pain. A study at Mayo Clinic has shown that endorphins help to lessen the symptoms of depression.
Exercise also raises the threshold tolerance to stress hormones such as cortisol, thus making you more capable of dealing with stress. Exercise also helps to delay age-related memory loss, promoting new growth in the brain’s hippocampus. It also stimulates the release of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that antidepressant medications endeavor to mimic.
Oftentimes depression results in the lack of motivation to get involved in any kind of activity, so just getting started is the first challenge. Taking an exercise or yoga class, or joining a group that walks together has the added benefit of bringing positive social interaction into your life. A wide social network is very important in dealing with depression, so group activities have a double gain by benefitting both body and mind.
Choose activities that are most enjoyable, something that doesn’t seem so daunting and overwhelming. Medical research is showing that many ordinary activities that are considered “real exercise” are no more effective in dealing with depression as the most popular new exercise fashions. It is not necessary to take on long runs or a major workout program. Simple daily activities count for a lot. Humble and poorly appreciated activities that get us moving work will work very well. Indulge in activities that get us moving, and don’t forget to stop for a minute to enjoy the feeling of getting something done!
Dancing has a double benefit in that it involves a social network as well as all the other benefits we receive when we get ourselves moving. Even more beneficial for elevating our mood, it is an activity that is done with music. The healing effects of music have come to be seriously considered in the medical field, as studies are showing that it can be an effective complement to medical treatment.
Oftentimes the best first step to dealing with the blues is taking some simple step where we have a feeling of accomplishment, even though it doesn’t directly relate to bigger problems that may be burdening us. Some activities that offer some pretty good cardio workouts include cleaning the house, especially mopping, sweeping or vacuuming, washing the car, or gardening and yard work, especially raking and mowing.
For that matter, cleaning house, yard work or bicycling to music adds that dimension to your healing program. Other good activities include yoga, tennis, swimming, golf (walking rather than using a riding cart) or low-impact aerobics.
I have found that a walk in nature has incredible healing power. It is also a good way to solve problems and shed stress. There is something very healing about being in nature, and that includes the simple activity of gardening, where your hands are in the dirt and you are hanging out with flowers and all the other plant people. The simple act of taking regular walks has been shown to be effective in improving mood disorders.
The important thing is to plan around what works best for you. Ask yourself whether you like individual or group activities. Be honest with yourself regarding your physical capacities; if you have arthritis in the knees, aerobics (even low impact) or a running program are not in your best interest. What will realistically work with your schedule? What are your goals – weight loss, gaining strength, mood enhancement?
Exercise has been shown to be an effective way to beat depression, one that benefits both body and mind. Perhaps the most important element in your healing plan is to consider, “what is it that I most enjoy”? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but have never allowed yourself the time to pursue? Perhaps taking your camera out on daily walks to capture small moments of beauty, or sketching scenes on the way to the park will bring out a long-neglected creative side. Be creative and think outside the box if getting started is proving to be a wall in your healing journey. And don’t forget; make it a way to have fun!
It would be great to hear from you about how you deal with depression. What approaches have proven to be “best practices” for healing yourself? What about your journey may be help and encouragement for others? If you feel so moved, please share your experience with others in the Comments section below.
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