“I can hardly force myself to get up in the morning, let alone exercise.” Unlike other mental health conditions, depression is notoriously known and good at disparaging any meaning. Battling nothingness is a tedious affair. A losing game. Indifference, lethargy, perpetual ennui. Joy? What joy? Colors and hues? Meaningless. The Sun? Obsolete. Love? “I do not know, love. I feel nothing. And it’s a dull, throbbing, persistent suffering.” – Exercise for what? Toning our biceps? Glutes? Indeed, exercising is good for our general health and wellness. – But we’re already aware of its myriad physical benefits. So, what about the mental health department? Is there a link? – We need solid proof. Can exercise truly shoo off the gloom? – Let’s figure it out together. Here’s all you need to know about the benefits of exercise for depression.

Trouble getting started

For the ones struggling with depression, motivation is anything but sustainable. Insomnia, decreased appetite, low energy, zero drive, constant aches, heightened pain perception – all of which inevitably (and organically) lead to an overall lack of motivation. Lethargy sets in. – And refuses to leave. Saying yes to regular exercise (and doing it) can be a taunting experience for the ones battling the impenetrable cycle. The key to getting started: Start slow. Pick your favorite activity. 5 minutes a day will eventually become 10, 10 will become 15 – and so on. Baby steps. Make the first step. No excuses.

Exercise and science

So, is there a link? Can depression truly benefit from something so seemingly trivial and superficial such as breaking a little sweat? – Absolutely. Working out doesn’t just affect our body fat percentage; it can make us happier. (we’re not saying obliviously content – happier.) How? It’s exceptionally good at a) buffering our response to stress and b) boosting happy brain chemicals. Simple? Only on the surface. Pinky scratch – and behold, a biological cascade of intricate events unfolds, resulting in numerous mental health benefits. So, let’s begin.

Release the hounds! (chemical reaction)

The brain can fight it as much as it wants, but the body knows. The body feels. Counterintuitive as one might deem, exercise makes us feel good (and the mood-boosting effects can last for up to 24 hours!) simply because it is STRESSFUL. We know, right? Stress makes us feel good? Since when? Well, technically speaking, exercise is a physical stress on the body, activating certain parts of our nervous system, thus creating a beneficial chemical reaction whose sole purpose is restoring balance while successfully fighting off anxiety and depression. In other words – release the neurotransmitters!

It’s all in your head, literally

In individuals suffering from depression, neuroscientists have noticed that the part of the brain that helps regulate mood – also known as the hippocampus – is smaller in size. Working out improves nerve cell connections or supports nerve cell growth due to the release of neurotrophic (proteins) that help nerve cells grow and create new connections. The “happy feeling” when working out comes from what we know as “runner’s high,” caused by neurotransmitters called endocannabinoids. Other beneficial neurotransmitters include:

  • endorphins: in charge of blocking pain and increasing pleasure
  • dopamine: responsible for mood, attention, sleep, motivation, learning, and working memory
  • serotonin: regulates mood and emotions; the harder we work, the more serotonin we produce.

Exercise can relieve stress

So, what are the benefits of exercise for depression? Working out has been associated with numerous mental health benefits, the essential being: it’s a potent stress allayer. We might know the scenario firsthand; after one of those “to hell and back” days at the office, we hit the trails or the gym, and just like that: POOF! Rage and fury no more. Magic? Or science? Physical activity is known to reduce stress by reducing levels of stress hormones, namely, adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise doesn’t just help us handle heaps of stress as they come. It can actually prevent it by rewiring our nervous system and making it more resilient to inner and external stimuli. The key is finding that one activity you genuinely enjoy. Do you like dancing? The great news, dancing can be a stress reliever, and the benefits of Zumba dance, for example, workouts, are indisputable.

Sleep, don’t weep

Is it just us, or is sleep underrated? We frequently overlook one of the essential keys to maintaining mental health. We’re as healthy as our last night’s sleep quality. Numerous studies have shown that, regardless of the exercise type (be it kayaking, pole dancing, hurdle racing, or woodchopping), physical activity of any kind (if done regularly, of course) can improve sleep duration and quality. Additionally, working out can also help with sleep onset latency. (i.e., the time it takes a person to fall asleep after turning the lights out) Individuals struggling with depression usually experience sleep difficulties – erratic patterns and insomnia. To sum it up, YES – incorporating an exercise routine can provide more than essential benefits for our mental health.

Exercise = self-confidence

Are we being skeptical again? Working out improves our self-image. Surely, it might seem superficial, especially if we’re more inclined to perceive (and evaluate) “the self” through our intellectual capacities and accomplishments. However, nobody is immune to a positive personal image. Studies have shown that regular exercise can immensely contribute to self-compassion, as well as an improved body image. You like what you see – it’s as simple as that. Meeting our workout goals (no matter how seemingly small and irrelevant) can boost our self-confidence and self-esteem. Getting in shape is beneficial for finding that path to self-love. Working out can also:

  • promote our thinking and memory
  • improve our mood daily
  • help us get back on the “social horse” – working on social interaction
  • teach us how to develop a healthy coping strategy
  • break the negative thought cycle
  • fight off the mental health stigma

Final thoughts on the benefits of exercise for depression

Now that we have explored all the benefits of exercise for depression, here’s a friendly reminder: if you find that your working out routine is not helping your condition, don’t hesitate to speak to a mental health professional. Although it can alleviate symptoms of depression, exercise is not a substitute for medication and psychotherapy.