The advice to exercise regularly to help with depression sounds great, in theory. Yet putting that advice into practice is another story. When you are feeling low, the last thing you want to do is move, even if you know you should. This article provides practical, science-based information about that two-word advice to ‘exercise regularly’ so you can make exercise a more user-friendly tool for managing depression.
How you think about exercising for depression matters
Exercise is one word with many, many meanings, so before reading further, let’s get really clear about what we mean by exercise. If you are exercising to be healthy and well, exercise is not just any movement— it is moving for the specific purpose of improving your body (or brain) in some specific way. It is not a punishment for eating too much, or a way to fix “problem” areas on your body and it does not need to be painful or exhausting. Instead, it is a way to take care of your body and help it function its best. Exercise is any amount of time you take to move in specific ways that allow you to feel and function as well as you can for as long as you can.
Power of Mindset
Your mindset about exercise strongly influences if you will choose to exercise, how your body responds to exercise, and your ability to stay motivated. For many people, the thought of exercise only reminds them that they are limited by their weight, pain, busy lifestyle, fatigue, or just feel too lazy to get up and start. These mindsets are mostly the product of how our culture defines and approaches exercise, rather than any shortcoming on your part and any one of these can make the recommendation to exercise only add to depression, rather than help treat it. However, when you know how to use it well, exercise becomes a user-friendly resource for feeling and functioning your best.
Because mindset is so powerful, using exercise to help with depression starts by being aware of your current mindset about exercise. The brain is like a muscle—it can change. In order to create a fresh approach to exercising with depression, start by being aware of your own mindsets about exercise right now. Jot down the first things that come to mind when you think of the word exercise. When you are done, continue reading.
Why exercise for depression
There are many reasons why exercise is recommended as part of the treatment for depression. Knowing why exercise works helps you use it in the way that is right for you.
Chemical connection to depression
The exact cause of depression is not fully understood. However, in recent years, we have come to understand the role of brain chemistry and this has changed the way medications help with depression. Exercise has a tremendous influence on these brain chemicals as well, when you have the right mindset and know how to use it to feel and function better.
Because life is in a constant state of change, the chemistry of your body and brain are too. When you are calm and content, your body heals and repairs and your brain is set up to learn and think clearly. When you are in a stress response, your brain hyper-focuses on the problem at hand and prepares you to move so you can fight or flee the ‘threat’. Your body puts healing and repair on hold. The stress response is there to keep you safe and it is not a problem unless you stay in that stress response.
Chronic stress is a risk factor for developing depression
Staying in a stress response for too long impairs the function of molecules that are designed to keep the cells in your brain functioning well. These molecules are called neurotrophins and two key ones are brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and transforming-growth-factor-β1 (TGF-β1). When these are not available, your brain’s ability to adapt to stressors and form new brain cell connections is reduced. This is one of the main reasons chronic stress is a risk factor for developing depression as well as other diseases.
Depression is a sneaky stressor
What we often don’t recognize is that stress is not just when you are overwhelmed. Depression and all the side effects that go with it—such as isolation from others, lack of interest in things you enjoy, sleep disturbances, and weight gain—are also sources of stress. When you don’t recognize these emotions and states as stress, they are likely to lead to being stuck in a stressed state. This chronic state of stress is a risk factor for depression and sends you into a downward spiral because one leads to the other.
Stress is your body preparing for movement.
Even though you may not feel energized and ready to move, when you are in a stress response, your body is ready to move. Making the connection between the feeling of those low-energy stressors and the need to move is a key mindset shift that will help you use exercise to manage the ebb and flow of emotions each day.
The synergy of medications and exercise
Exercise can be a treatment strategy that synergizes with the medications you are on to help them work better. Studies show when exercise is added to medical treatment for depression, it is able to reduce the relapse risk, increase adherence to treatment, and promote the management of side effects with a 60–80% of success. There are four main ways exercise helps with depression that medication does not provide:
- Exercise produces BDNF and TGF-β like no medication can. Think of your body as a factory that produces the molecules your brain needs to function at its best and helps keep depression from taking over. As a bonus, exercise not only helps mood but it also improves other side effects of depression like memory, focus, and sleep quality.
- Exercise completes the antidote to the stress response. Exercise gives your body what it is begging for when you are in a stress response—movement—so it can get back to the state of feeling well. Yet when exercise is time-consuming, painful, complicated, or exhausting, just the word exercise is stress-producing. The right type and amount is key to using exercise to get out of chronic stress and help with depression.
- It’s adjustable for the ebb and flow of life. Medications keep brain chemistry steady, but life is anything but steady. You can use exercise to fine-tune your brain chemistry to manage the emotions that come and go with the inevitable changes in life. Knowing how to use exercise builds confidence that you can improve your mood and keep stress from building up in the moments you need it most.
- Reduces inflammation. The role of inflammation on depression is becoming more and more clear. Depression medications have some anti-inflammatory ability but cannot adjust to the rises in inflammation caused by stress and other changes in life. Too little and too much movement, as well as chronic stress, all increase inflammation. Knowing how to exercise at the just-right level, in a way that takes care of the stress response, is the way to use exercise to lower inflammation and your risks for depression.
How to make exercise user-friendly when you have depression
Here are five strategies for making exercise the kind of medication you can adjust and adapt to how you are feeling, fine-tuning it for exactly what you need in that moment to move from stressed to well and prevent chronic stress from perpetuating depression.
1. Feel better from the start of exercise
How you start determines if the habit will stick, That is because of the way the brain creates habits. It is hardwired to avoid what makes you feel worse now, and repeat what makes you feel better now. It is a myth that the start of exercise will be hard and painful until your body gets used to it. When you start at a level that feels good, with the type that feels best for your body now, you have the best chance of making it a habit. Just like medications work best when you take them regularly, using exercise as a treatment for depression means making it a habit. As the saying goes “start as you mean to continue”.
2. Be guided by exercise science
When you do an exercise that goes against the way the body is designed to move, it does not feel good and can contribute to chronic pain. As stated above, exercise needs to feel good in your body right away for it to become a habit. Using exercises based on movement science specifically for moving well in daily life means exercise is less stressful for your mind and body and thus will be effective for keeping you out of chronic stress and depression. Look for science-based exercises recommended by a professional who knows you and what you specifically want and need from exercise.
3. Learn to listen to and trust your body as you exercise
Only you know how your body feels, and that is ultimately your most reliable guide. Our culture perpetuates the mindset that you need to ignore or overcome your body to get results from exercise. When your mindset during exercise improves your ability to listen to and trust your body, you are able to fine-tune how you use exercise to manage the ebbs and flows of stress and emotion. Moreover, your body is where you hold emotions. Studies show ignoring emotions does not make them go away, they only grow stronger. Listening to and trusting your body as you move is a great way to build greater emotional intelligence and self-compassion, two skills shown to protect against depressive episodes and strengthen your ability to create lasting healthy habits.
4. Build self-motivation through mindfulness
Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment with curiosity and kindness. When you add that type of present moment attention to your exercise time, you are more likely to listen to your body and make the adjustments you need so exercise helps you feel better right away. Mindfulness helps you recognize when those old mindsets like ‘more is better’ or ‘pain means progress’ sneak back into your approach to exercise. The curiosity and kindness skills of mindfulness shift you back to using exercise as self-care, allowing you to listen to and trust your body so you do the right amount to reduce inflammation and get out of the stress response. The bonus is that when you exercise with this kind of presence, you strengthen your skill of mindfulness, which also has been shown effective at reducing depression.
5. Exchange exercise as a ‘should’ to a resource for self-care
It takes a lot more brain energy to do things you don’t want to do but know you should do. Depression also takes up a lot of brain energy, which is why exercise is put on the back burner when you feel low. When your brain knows that exercise will make you feel better, it is easier to choose to do it, especially when you feel low and want to feel better. The key is being mindful of what you do, how you do it, and how it makes you feel, so your body informs your brain that exercise will help it feel better. When exercise starts to feel like a ‘should’, that is a warning signal you have strayed from moving by design, listening to and trusting your body, and moving with presence and kindness.
6. Do a balance of the three types of exercise
Each type of exercise plays a unique role in helping you get out of a stress response and manage depression with more ease. Knowing how to use them gives you the ability to adapt exercise to ride the ebbs and flows of emotional changes and challenges rather than letting them keep you stuck in chronic stress and depression. Doing a balance of these three types means you know you are doing enough exercise to be healthy and well without constantly feeling like you should be doing more.
Stretching and depression
Mobility is freedom of movement. Stretching is one key type of exercise that restores your body’s ability to move by reducing pain and stiffness so being in your body is more comfortable. You do not need to be flexible to stretch, you just need to know how to do it in the way that fits your body now. Stretch mindfully in small bouts throughout the day, any time you start to feel tension build or your mood drop. The great thing about stretching is you can do it just about anywhere, anytime, making it a great go-to type of exercise for managing the ebbs and flows of stress, inflammation and mood.
Strength exercises and depression
Strength is the ability to move your body against gravity. The idea that it is painful, complicated, or time-consuming makes it stressful. When you do strength exercises the way your body is designed, they do not leave you sore; rather they leave you feeling more confident you can do daily activities with more ease and safety. Strength training twice a week has been shown to improve self-esteem, mood, and energy. When you are carrying extra weight, have arthritis pain, are self-conscious about exercising in front of others, or are short on time, knowing how to do strength training at home is a simple way to keep brain chemicals as well as metabolism up while restoring a sense of confidence in your body.
Cardiovascular exercise and depression
Stamina is your ability to move for an extended period of time without getting tired. This means you have more energy to enjoy life. Cardiovascular exercise like walking, biking, or dancing is the type that builds stamina and has been shown to increase mood-lifting brain chemicals in as little as ten minutes at a moderate intensity. The term cardio has come to mean high-intensity, which deters many people from believing they can do it. Yet studies show several short bouts, of light to moderate intensity improve brain chemistry as well. By moving the way your body is designed, listening to your body, and staying mindful, you can sense how much is enough to churn up those great brain chemicals you need to manage depression. Whether it is five minutes several times a day, ten minutes every day, or thirty minutes three times a week, the important part is you are building stamina while providing something for your brain that no medication can provide.
Depression and its side effects make exercising regularly challenging. Yet, exercise provides antidepressant qualities that medication cannot provide. Whether you use exercise to improve the effects of medications, or without medications, knowing how to think about and use exercise to fit your body is essential for using it well. Moving smart, listening to and trusting your body, staying mindful, and strategically using each type of exercise for its unique benefits turn exercise from something you should do to a personalized, user-friendly tool for managing depression.
This article provides general information about exercising with depression The specifics about how much is enough and the timing of exercise when you have asthma is very individual. Exercising WELL is the way to have a clinical exercise physiologist as part of your mental health care team. Along with your health care providers, I can help you decide the way to use exercise to help with depression. Click the button below to learn more about the Exercising WELL online program and coaching. If you have specific questions, please feel free to contact me.
Special thanks to Dr. Donna Bartlet for assistance with the medication portion of this article. Donnas Book Med Strong is a valuable guide to maximizing the effectiveness of medications by minimizing the amount you are taking.
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