The benefits of working out aren’t just physical – exercise can also stave off sadness and boost your mood when you’re battling depression.
So why does moving your body help your brain and what are the best ways to make use of this powerful, natural antidepressant?
If you’re depressed, the first step is to see your doctor or a psychologist to start treatment with talk therapy and/or medication but it is worth noting that for women with severe depression, physical activity can boost the effectiveness of antidepressant medication. And in some instances a woman with mild to moderate depression can control symptoms with exercise.
Why Moving Your Body Helps Your Brain
Working out sets off a chemical reaction in the brain that’s good for everyone, depressed or not.
When you exercise, your brain instantly revs up production of endorphins, the chemicals that help elevate mood, improve brain function and concentration.
Staying active also balances cortisol, a steroid hormone produced under stress that creates the fight-or-flight feeling. Reducing cortisol levels helps prevent an anxiety attack and stabilizes mood.
If you exercise regularly, the emotional benefits become longterm. Physical activity can produce chemical changes in the brain that lead to the eventual ‘rewriting’ of memory, which makes an event seem less traumatic. So you feel less drained, depressed or sad. Staying fit can also stave off side effects – both from depression and antidepressant medications – such as weight gain.
Starting an effective exercise program is as simple as walking out your front door.
- Exercise Effectively You don’t have to run marathons or spend hours in the gym to get the mood-boosting benefits. Even moderate aerobic exercise 3-4 times a week will produce a pronounced effect in a relatively short time.The types of movement you choose targets different depression issues.
A long, peaceful walk can relieve stress and recharge mental batteries. Free weights maintain muscle tone, enhancing appearance and leading to a greater feeling of well-being.
- Short, intense workouts – 30 minutes of exercise at a level that gets you breathing hard helps release pain-inhibiting endorphins quickly, immediately enhancing your mood.
To avoid burnout, start slowly and work your way up. Don’t try to do more than you’re willing to accomplish on a regular basis. No matter what kind of exercise you do, be consistent. That’s what will keep your brain’s production of mood-altering chemicals balanced.
- Make it enjoyable. Don’t exercise alone: Ask a friend to join you on a power walk through a park or around a mall. Incorporating some social activity makes exercising more fun.
- Mix it up. It’s easy to get bored walking the same route every day or running on a treadmill. Alternate routes, cross-train on different exercise machines, listen to a variety of music and even wear different colours of clothing.
- Be accountable. Ask a friend or family member to track your exercise schedule and check in once a week for progress updates, to discuss any obstacles and offer kudos when you’ve hit an exercise milestone.
- Go easy on yourself. Berating yourself over a missed workout or shortened routine will only make you feel worse. Instead, remind yourself of how often in the past month you did work out, and use those successes to stay motivated.
Reward yourself. Set obtainable workout goals. For example, if you follow your exercise plan for a week, treat yourself to a massage, movie or new workout gear. Earning treats through hard work will boost your confidence even more.