How can exercise help ease the symptoms of depression?

Depression affects millions of Americans, making it difficult to live life to its fullest. While many with depression should seek professional treatment, a regular exercise regimen can help individuals to feel better. Keep reading to find out how exercise can help with depression symptoms.
John Dolores, PhD, JD, FACHE

John Dolores, PhD, JD, FACHE

Clinical Psychologist and Chief Operating Officer at .

Aids in Maintaining a Balanced State of Wellness

Physical activity alleviates depressive symptoms in many ways. One way is through the release of endorphins such as serotonin and dopamine. These feel-good hormones provide the body with a sense of euphoria that naturally relieves common physical symptoms of depression such as headaches, body pain, and gut problems. These hormones also help reduce the level of the stress hormone, cortisol, within the body, minimizing feelings of stress and anxiety, which often catalyze sleeping problems.

By pushing down cortisol levels in the body, this increase in endorphin levels can help restore the body’s ideal equilibrium, stabilizing mood and emotions in the process, which are heavily influenced by depression.

While exercise initially aids with better sleep through endorphins, this practice also serves as a healthy outlet to release pent-up energy, making it easier to fall asleep and experience the many benefits of good sleep.

Good quality sleep is one of the most important determinants of a healthy brain and is a major factor in achieving better immunity, mental health, and healthier organ systems in the body. Not to mention, movement through exercise allows the release of built-up tension in the muscles caused by the body’s response to stress.

As muscles relax from stress, it fosters ideal conditions for undisrupted sleep, which contributes to better emotional regulation, and improved ability to manage stressors and triggers that contribute to depression.

Thanks to the power of endorphins, exercise can make us feel good. However, it also helps prevent us from feeling bad. The human body needs to exercise to stay healthy and happy. It’s what we’ve evolved to do, so it comes as no surprise when we see that a lack of exercise can actually contribute to depression and stress.

Exercise is important not only for people managing depression but also for those who want to avoid depression. Exercise promotes a body that functions in a way that is holistically healthy. With all of the body’s systems being connected to one another, and influencing one another, exercise is one of the few things we can do that helps us holistically, including our mental health.

These combined effects create a healthier and more balanced state of wellness, fueling motivation and confidence to engage socially and enjoy outdoor activities, like group fitness classes or hiking with friends. This not only combats feelings of loneliness and isolation but also offers a sense of control over your life, which can help overcome depression and improve your overall quality of life.

However, despite the anti-depressing effects of physical exercise, a comprehensive and personalized approach to managing depression should still be implemented in collaboration with a licensed mental health professional in order to effectively address depressive disorders. In many cases, exercise on its own is not enough.

Promotes Healthy Brain Function

Exercise is a common prescriptive behavior for my patients suffering from depression. It is part of a comprehensive treatment plan used in many models of therapy specifically with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), also known as “Behavioral Activation.”

Exercise promotes health in ways that are complementary to mental health including oxygenation of the CNS and the release of endogenous neurotransmitters responsible for positive mood. Most famously serotonin and dopamine.

Moderate aerobic exercise has also been shown to promote healthy brain function by encouraging robust circulation improving blood flow to nerves responsible for the control of the Amygdala, a structure partly responsible for the experience of feelings like fear and sadness among others.

Jonathan W. Smith, LMFT

Jonathan W. Smith, LMFT

Executive Director at .
Alisha Bowker, LCSW

Alisha Bowker, LCSW

Psychotherapist at .

Elevates Mood, Increases Motivation, and Boosts Energy

Exercise is such a helpful tool in combating the symptoms of depression for a few reasons. When we work out we naturally release endorphins which are natural mood elevators. So in theory you always mentally feel a little bit better post-workout than when you went into it. For folks with depression who are generally lacking in serotonin, this is a big help. In addition, one symptom of depression is a lack of motivation and feelings of lethargy.

Committing to doing even just 15-20 minutes of exercise a few times a week helps to break the pattern of stagnation and increase a sense of motivation. Exercise also gives you energy, so that can be helpful in countering the severe tiredness that can come with depression as well.

Helps Reduce Stress and Anxiety While Improving Sleep and Self-Esteem

Engaging in regular workouts and exercise can positively impact depression symptoms by releasing endorphins, which act as natural mood elevators. Physical activity reduces stress and anxiety, improves sleep quality, and boosts self-esteem. Regular exercise also promotes neuroplasticity, enhancing brain function and emotional regulation. It provides a sense of accomplishment and routine, helping individuals regain a sense of control over their lives.

While not the sole treatment for depression, exercise can complement other therapies and contribute to overall mental well-being, making it a valuable tool in managing depression symptoms.

Nitjaporn Lertlum

Nitjaporn Lertlum

Dr. Michael Green MD

Dr. Michael Green MD

OB/GYN and Co-Founder at .

Mitigates Depression and Enables Healthy Mood Regulation

There are several pathways by which exercise benefits depression symptoms. Endorphins from regular moderate exercise can be as effective in mitigating some of the symptoms of depression as an antidepressant. Physical activity also naturally helps us reduce cortisol levels which add to our perceived stress.

Exercise to sleep better and more regularly, as many depressed individuals experience trouble managing under or oversleeping. Physical activity also raises neurochemical levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which are “the happy chemicals” that help motivate us and fuel our desire and sense of contentment.

Physical activity can also be a channel for understanding our thoughts and feelings by giving them a healthy outlet. People who exercise more tend to regulate their emotions with less difficulty and effort and feel more connected to their bodies overall through strengthening, stretching, and other activities. Exercise can also help some people boost their self-esteem, whether motivated by body image or not, helping them feel more at peace.

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