For five years, Tori Madison, who lives in Atlanta, has battled depression. Feeling paralyzed by grief after her brother’s death, she initially isolated herself from others and quickly found that she could no longer do the things she once enjoyed like yoga, training for triathlons, and hiking. “I went to doctors and psychiatrists who prescribed me anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications, but these never really healed the cause of my depression. Rather, they provided a temporary fix for my agony and pain,” she explains. It wasn’t until she added daily cardiovascular exercise to her overall treatment plan that her anxieties, fears, and sadness started to subside. Today, she’s continuing to transform her life by getting her master’s degree in health and wellness coaching and hopes to help other people address and manage their own experiences with depression. If you struggle with depression and/or anxiety, you know all too well how difficult it can be to care for yourself—both physically and emotionally. While treatment options such as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication have made life so much better for millions of people, researchers are now finding that people who also use exercise for depression and anxiety are experiencing some amazing results.
What the Experts Says About Exercise for Depression and Anxiety: The Science Behind This Treatment Method
It’s no secret that physical activity is good for your body. But what about the mental health benefits of exercise? Judy Ho, PhD, a double board-certified and licensed clinical and forensic psychologist, says that moderate intensity exercise appears to improve depression and anxiety symptoms and increase self-concept. And there’s research to back up Ho’s claims. According to one study, exercise as an add-on to conventional antidepressant therapies improved the efficacy of other treatment options such as antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy. When it comes to the chemical process that takes place in the brain, Prakash Masand, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence, says that in cases of anxiety and depression specifically, exercise helps release essential neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. “This is important because these neurotransmitters are responsible for mood, energy, sleep, concentration, our ability to handle stress, cravings, and more,” he adds. He explains that people with anxiety and depression have a chemical imbalance of these vital neurotransmitters, and exercise is a natural way of boosting their production. And licensed psychologist Farrah Hauke, PsyD., points out that increasing the availability of serotonin is the purpose of most commonly prescribed antidepressant medications. In addition to changes in brain chemistry, Hauke also says that exercise results in positive cognitive and behavioral side effects, such as being a welcome distraction from anxious or depressive thoughts and reducing feelings of isolation.
How to Use Exercise for Depression and Anxiety
When it comes to the role exercise plays in anxiety and depression treatment plans, Ho says that in general, more moderate exercise produces greater enjoyment than very intense activity, particularly for individuals who are already struggling with depression and/or anxiety, who might find a very vigorous or frequent exercise program too daunting in their current emotional state. “Exercise does not need to be lengthy or intense, and fitness gains, like actually losing body fat or weight, are not necessary for patients to experience positive results like symptom reduction,” says Ho. Hauke says any exercise that is an “upper,” such as aerobic activity that elevates heart rate and breathing (e.g., running, cycling, and dancing) is good for managing the [linkbuilder id=”6857″ text=”symptoms of depression”]. “For a novice exerciser, this also could be any intentional and/or repetitive body movement such as pushing the kids in the stroller, house cleaning, or walking the dog,” she says.
“Shallow breathing sends a message to your brain to be alert, whereas when you do deep belly breathing, it changes that message towards a less anxious state.” —Robert Oppenheimer, LCSW
What You Need to Know Before You Start Exercising
Exercising when you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or out of shape can be stressful in itself. That’s why it’s so important to find something you like and feel comfortable doing regularly. The best part about physical activity and its ability to ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression is that you don’t have to be a gym rat to reap the benefits. In fact, Masand says even a 10 to 20-minute brisk walk can do wonders for your mental health. Robert Oppenheimer, clinical therapist at CAST Centers, says that at first, it might feel like exercise actually makes anxiety symptoms worse, not better. “When you start to increase physical activity, the heart rate goes up, which feels quite similar to anxiety symptoms,” he explains.
In cases of anxiety and depression specifically, exercise helps release essential neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.