How Exercise Really Affects Depression

Photographed by Molly Cranna.
If you're someone who has depression, you know that the physical effects can be just as powerful and overwhelming as the emotional ones. You might feel tired, deal with chronic aches and pains, have trouble sleeping, or notice changes in your appetite. So, even though everyone in your life might suggest that you should "go get some exercise," it's not always as easy as lacing up your sneakers and going to the gym.
But, as you may have heard, exercise seems to be incredibly helpful for treating depression in a few different ways: it can improve your mood in both the short and long term, it's a way to find social support, and it helps you set and reach goals, which can improve your overall confidence, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). From a physiological standpoint, exercise has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that regulates mood. And we know that people with depression tend to have a smaller hippocampus than those without depression, according to Harvard Health Review.
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On top of that, some studies have specifically looked at how aerobic exercise compares with psychiatric medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that are often prescribed as a treatment for major depressive disorder. A 2000 study showed that after participating in a 10-month aerobic exercise regimen, people with major depressive disorder were significantly less depressed than those who took simply took medication. In other words, while exercise can't "cure" depression, and it's belittling to assume that it could, it can be one helpful form of treatment.
So, where even do you begin with an exercise program? If you are seeking support for depression, then it's worthwhile to talk to your mental healthcare provider about how exercise can be part of your treatment plan. Be sure to pick a workout program that you genuinely like, because exercise seems to be most effective at reducing depression when people are already exercising, according to the APA. And remember to start small (even going for a 10-minute walk can be helpful), and choose activities that you can keep coming back to.
At the end of the day, it's important to remember that exercise does not have the power to change the way that you think, Patricia Thornton, PhD, a psychologist in New York City and member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America told Refinery29. For some people, exercise is just one of many tools that helps them feel better along with psychotherapy, medications, and other equally-important forms of self-care.
If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.
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