I’ve been saying this a lot the last few years, so it’s nice to see both scholarly research and the popular press following this very important idea for depression treatment:
Physical exercise is effective in combating and treating depression!
The NY Times covers some large scale research well in this link here. Basically, the article states that we are beginning to really learn how essential exercise is for optimal mental health. Researchers are starting to understand the actual processes behind the benefits exercise has in treating depression.
I think most therapists who work regularly with depression already know this at some level anecdotally. I challenge my clients who struggle with depression to see what the effects of a moderate amount of exercise do to their moods. This also seems to be effective with anxiety, mood problems due to bipolar disorder, etc.
The problem, of course, is that when we’re depressed, our minds want to do nothing of the sort. It’s hard to get going with anything, let alone going outside or getting to the gym for some physical exercise. This is a great time to apply the dialectical behavior therapy skill of “opposite action”. Rather than given to our emotions that make us want to isolate, decrease activity, and feel more sad, we need to do something that is directly contradictory to what our urges are telling us. In this case, we need to get moving!
Physical exercise increases many of our physical systems that help us to feel good.
Using a skill like opposite action from DBT also helps us to realize we have more control over situation that we may realize and we are not at the whim of our emotions and urges.
Assuming you’re physically capable of it, a good starting point is to shoot for 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. Something simple like walking is a nice place to start. Most of my clients report an improvement in mood with as little as a week of this routine, with many seeing significant reductions in symptoms over a few months.
If you’re struggling with finding motivation, you might consider some simple strategies to make you more likely to exercise. Try getting an exercise buddy with whom you can an agreement to meet regularly to work out. The social contact also is helpful in fighting off depression, In a little accountability can help us overcome our inertia. If need be, you might even consider hiring a personal trainer. Exercise is most effective earlier in the day, and if you’re struggling with depression, this can also have the impact of getting you out of bed earlier, getting you moving and doing something that is taking life in a better direction.
Simply paying attention to how you feel after exercise will help you connect with the positive emotional state it creates. I find for most people this is a more tangible reward than some kind of long-term physical health benefit as it has an immediate impact on us. We have to notice this mindfully in order to make the learning really happened, so you might consider asking yourself where your mood is before and after exercise and tracking any improvements, even if it’s subtle.