About one in ten adults suffer from depression, with over one million deaths a year from suicide worldwide. It is only fairly recently that clinical depression has been seen as a medical disorder treatable with medication and therapy. Exercise has never played an especially important role in treatment.
Today, however, there is considerable proof that exercise can be a powerful tool in dealing with depression. A study at Harvard Medical School has shown that exercise can be as effective as SSRI anti-depressants for some people. What’s more, exercise can be used both by itself or as a complement to medication and therapy.
The chemical cocktail of exertion
Exercising starts a cascade of chemicals that have profound effects on our bodies and minds. High-intensity exercise releases, among other chemicals, the body’s feel-good endorphins which can help alleviate some symptoms of depression.
However, it is sustained low-intensity exercise that offers that most signiﬁcant long-term beneﬁts. This kind of exercise activates the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. Brain function improves, which makes you feel better. In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the brain’s hippocampus, which helps regulate mood, is often smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth here, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression. Some positive effects can be seen immediately, but it can take awhile before nerve cell improvement starts taking effect. A rule of thumb is that, similar to other treatments, it can take time before you feel the full effect, often weeks.
The paradox of getting started
The nature of depression often makes it hard or extremely hard to actually start exercising. The key to breaking the cycle of inactivity is to think very small. Start with ﬁve minutes of walking or any activity that you enjoy. The initially effects will soon turn the ﬁve into 10 and the 10 in 20. The important thing to keep in mind is to think long-term and make the activity a routine.