There is plenty of evidence that suggests regular exercise is good for our mental (and physical) health. It makes sense for most people with depression to include exercise as one of the strategies they use for getting and staying well.

Physical exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, has pronounced long-term antidepressant effects and can produce euphoria in the short-term. Numerous systematic reviews suggest that regular aerobic exercise (at sufficient intensity and duration) has comparable antidepressant efficacy to standard pharmaceutical antidepressants in treating depression. Consequently, current medical evidence supports the use of aerobic exercise as a treatment for depression. [Source: wikipedia]

pizzarunBut what if you hate exercising, or really can’t do it, for whatever reason? Is it possible to get the mental benefits of exercise through a different route?


Effect of exercise on the brain

Short-term euphoria aside, the main antidepressant effects of consistent aerobic exercise (30 minutes a day) seem to relate to neuroplasticity as well as healthy alterations in gene expression in the brain.  Some of these long-term effects include increased neuron growth, increased neurological activity, improved stress coping, enhanced cognitive control over behaviour, improved memory, and structural and functional improvements in brain structures and pathways associated with cognitive control and memory.  [Source: wikipedia]


Exercise the mind

Sound familiar? This post discusses mindfulness and how it promotes new neural activity and neuroplasticity. Mindfulness also improves cognitive performance (even after just 20 minute daily sessions for four days) and mood (Zeidan et al, 2010).  So if running or other physical exercise is not an option for you, try mindfulness. Or better still, do both.


But don’t give up on physical exercise unless you have to…

I wouldn’t want to talk anyone out of physical exercise, since the overall health benefits are so rewarding as this animated video 23 and 1/2 hours: What is the single best thing we can do for our health? shows so well.

Like anything we find difficult, it takes skill and and self-awareness to start and maintain an exercise habit. Dick Talens, co-founder of fitness website Fitocracy, says the only way to succeed is to create positive feedback loop – ie make sure you can feel or believe in the benefits of what you are doing in the short-term, so you feel encouraged to keep going.

NHS Choices has some 10 minute workouts that don’t involve running or leaving the house, and there are plenty of online resources for people with limited mobility who need low impact workouts (eg Launchpad)


References and further reading

S Rosenbaum et al Physical Activity Interventions for People With Mental Illness: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis 2014

F Zeidan et al Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief
mental training 2010

K Erickson The Aging Hippocampus: Interactions between Exercise, Depression, and BDNF 2011

Dick Talens The Myth of Willpower and “Eat Less, Move More”

exercise for depression: how to get the benefits without the pain

One thought on “exercise for depression: how to get the benefits without the pain

  • So important, and yet it’s one thing I don’t have a habit for. I walk or go to yoga about 4 times a week, but I don’t have it as a habit. Something I do no matter what.

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