When it comes to helping people cope with depression, the most commonly recommended treatments for most are usually either therapy alone, or counseling combined with prescription medications. These forms of treatment are often effective in helping people to manage the symptoms.
Research on Depression: What Works?
However, research on depression, anxiety, and exercise shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and even help people manage other conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and arthritis.
A study by S. Rosenbaum et al. published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (Sept 2014) showed that physical activity reduced depressive symptoms in people with mental illness. Physical activity has been researched more in recent years showing that when incorporated in a holistic approach to the treatment of mental illness it has the result of augmenting the action of the antidepressants, and speeding up the response to treatment.
What I See In My Practice In Patients With Depression
While some studies suggest that exercise can be a substitute to the pharmacological treatment, what I found in my clinic is that only a certain subset of patients with depression respond to physical activity only; those with depression that is milder in severity. However for moderate to severe depression I find that the addition of exercise to the medication regimen and other changes in lifestyle, make the recovery more robust and sustainable.
Physical Activity Defined
Physical activity was defined for the purpose of the above study as ‘any body movement that is produced by the contraction of the skeletal muscles that increases body energy expenditure’ and exercise as ‘a subset of activities that is planned, structured, and deliberate’. The simplest form of regular exercise that could still make a change in the treatment of depression is walking at a brisk pace, for at least 25 minute a day for a minimum of five days per week.
Challenges for People With Depression
People who struggle with depression know that what may seem to be a simple task, taking a walk, or working out, becomes a difficult one. Especially those with moderate to severe depression, due to the fact that some of the common symptoms include: lack of initiative, decreased energy, difficulty making decisions, thoughts of life not being worth living, etc. These symptoms make taking that first step toward regular exercise extremely difficult.
More Challenges Seen In Depression
Another common form of resistance for those with depression is the reluctance to initiate a change, even one that could potentially be helpful. I hear a recurrent complaint of ‘the lack of time’. For the depressed patient in the midst of their depression, it becomes increasingly difficult to attend to the required activities of going to work, attending to the children, cleaning the house, and taking care of themselves. Usually, they are the last ones to take care of themselves, especially if they are feeling mentally tired and physically exhausted.
Ways to Break Through The Challenges of Depression
Get Support and Encouragement
Rather than add exercise as one more task to add to the ‘to do list’, what I find the most helpful is to ask the patient to rely on a friend or a family member to support and encourage them to set a goal and start working towards it.
Schedule Exercise; Start Small And Build
Usually, I recommend people start with just allocating 10 minutes a day in their daily schedule for ‘exercise’. Even for a short distance of 100 yards is enough to start, but keep the mind aligned with a final goal of walking 25 minutes at a brisk pace every morning, if possible. I ask them to start with this small step, dividing the main goal into smaller ones that are more easily attainable. Accomplishing a small task becomes rewarding, and initiating it is less overwhelming. What I found is that when the window of time allocated for exercise exists in one’s schedule, increasing the amount of time or the intensity of the exercise is easy to adjust in a stepwise approach.
Take Time For Yourself
We all know that we can best help others if we take care of ourselves- so it is important that we make the time for ourselves a priority. Walking is really helpful in increasing the sense of planning, and actually doing something for one self which is extremely healing for the depressed patient who perceives him/herself as not worth it, a burden, and contemplating death.
Take Time To Reconnect With Others
Walking can also provide distraction from our negative thoughts- especially when done with a companion. It helps create a sense of connection with people and with our surroundings as well.
Physical Effects of Exercise
When done at a fast pace, exercise increases the heart rate high enough to provide aerobic benefits, including the production of the endorphins that often help you feel happier and more relaxed. When exercising regularly, people also begin feel better about their appearance which can boost confidence and improve self-esteem. And most importantly, exercise improves your chances of living a longer and healthier life.
Holistic Approaches to Treatment; Other Ways to Manage Depression
In addition to exercise, I encourage my patients to consider other lifestyle changes that can help manage depression. These include healthy nutrition practices, getting good sleep, increasing their social support, and practicing stress reduction techniques. I will talk more about these practices in future articles. So to answer the question can exercise help depression, yes it can, but also explore other options to maintain improvement in mood, energy level, and overall health.
Contact us to learn more about treatment for depression at 713-426-3100.
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