Exercise therapy for depression
Exercise can improve your health. This is a well known fact. While enhancing physical health, it has become widely accepted exercise can improve mental health too. This article will help you understand why health professionals are increasingly including exercise in depression interventions. You will discover exercise improves symptoms and can help to prevent relapse, as effectively as traditional treatments for depression.
What is depression?
Sadness is one of our most commonly experienced emotions. It is only natural to feel sad in response to feeling alone, losing a friend or partner, or going through a difficult time. We can also feel sad without knowing why. While sadness is an emotion commonly experienced at times in our lives, depression involves more than feeling sad. Depression makes life harder.
Symptoms of depression1a, 1b include feeling ‘down’ (e.g., depressed mood), loss of appetite/weight, and changes to sleeping patterns (e.g., insomnia). There can be fatigue, lack of motivation, agitation, and it can be harder to concentrate. Pleasure is experienced less (e.g., anhedonia) and libido is reduced. Other symptoms include feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness, and thoughts of self-harm / suicide. When depressed, we may experience some or many of these debilitating symptoms.
Exercise can help reduce depression
A growing body of research shows exercise is effective in treating depression. Exercise has been shown to improve overall mood as well as reduce symptoms and this is supported by research2, 3, 4, 5. Interestingly, research reviews6, 7, 8, 9 as well as meta-analyses10, 11 have also demonstrated this positive impact of exercise. It can reduce depression in different groups of people, such as women with post-partum12 depression (e.g., following pregnancy) and post-menopausal13, 14 depression. Symptoms can be reduced in people with obesity15, 16 issues. Exercise also reduces depression in the elderly17, 18, 19 as well as children and adolescents20, 21, 22.
Exercise is also known to improve symptoms associated with depression. For example, exercise can alleviate insomnia23, 24 (see also meta-anlyses25, 26) and improve appetite27, 28. Regular exercise has been associated with pleasure29, 30, 31, 32 and improving symptoms such as energy levels33, 34 and self-esteem35, 36, 37, 38. Exercise can also ease anxiety39, 40, 41, which often occur during depression. A sense of achievement can also be gained.
Exercise can help prevent relapse
Relapse is when depression re-occurs. Relapse prevention simply refers to preventing more episodes. It is essential to include relapse prevention when treating depression. Several studies have shown that exercise helps to reduce relapse19, 42, 43, 44. This means after overcoming depression, exercise can decrease the chances of becoming depressed again.
Exercise may also have a positive longer term impact on mental health. Longitudinal studies conclude there are reduced depression rates years after participating in exercise programs. Several studies found a positive long term impact on depressive symptoms22, 45. One research study even found that exercise reduces relapse more than an antidepressant medication18.
Exercise, medication and counselling
Blumenthal,Babyak and colleagues compared exercise with medication in their research18, 43, 46 into depression therapy. They found that exercise was as effective as antidepressant medication in treating symptoms43, 46, also found by other researchers47. Interestingly, exercise may be better than some antidepressants for reducing relapse18.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is considered the gold standard when it comes to depression interventions. Should you combine it with exercise? In an interesting study, researchers compared two groups being treated for depression. One group was only given CBT while a second group received both exercise and CBT. Combining CBT with exercise was found to reduce symptoms more than using CBT by itself48. Some studies have found exercise to be as good as counselling49, 50 and one research study even concluded exercise comparable to CBT51 in when treating depression.
Such research suggests exercise is as good as, if not better than some medications when treating depression, and that exercise can be as useful as some counselling therapies. On a deeper level; however, the recommendation is simply to include exercise in depression treatments. Exercise helps on a physiological as well as a psychological level, and without the costs of a therapist or the side-effects of a medication. And exercise can be fun.
This article has given you insight into how beneficial exercise is in alleviating symptoms of depression and reducing relapse. You learnt how exercise can be as effective as some psychiatric medications as well as some psychological interventions. All of this means exercise can help you whether you are depressed or not. The recommendation here is for you to start exercising right away because it is fun and may help keep the blues away.
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