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The Effects of Physical Activity on Depression

Depression is a common, yet serious medical illness that can and does, negatively impact the way in which a sufferer thinks, acts and feels. Marked by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness and emptiness, depression is a pervasive illness which affects normal day to day living and quality of life.

The symptoms of depression may vary from person to person but can include:

  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking or making decisions
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleeping patterns (sleeping too much or too little)
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities
  • Ideations of death or suicide

While everyone experiences some sadness during their life, or even low mood, a clinical diagnosis is necessary in order to determine whether or not you are suffering from depression. As with many illnesses, there are several myths surrounding depression. Some of these prevent people from seeking the help they need and keep them from partaking in activities that can contribute to a better mood and improved sense of wellbeing.

Millions of people in the United States suffer from depression and many are treated using a pharmacological approach alone, though evidence suggests that cognitive- behavioral approaches, in particular regular exercise, can exponentially increase the positive outcome of treatment for depression in many patients. Research suggest that there is a strong correlation between the effects of exercise on depression, yet the mode and mechanisms behind the seeming antidepressant nature of physical activity on the depressed, is still unclear. Many hypotheses have been proposed as to where these positive effects originate.

The Thermogenic Hypothesis alludes to the idea that a rise in core body temperature as a result of exercise, means that certain areas of the brain, such as the brain stem, experience a temperature increase too. The result of this is thought to be a general feeling of relaxation and a decrease muscle tension and while this hypothesis was proposed it was examined largely for its effect on anxiety, rather than depression.

The Endorphin Hypothesis suggests that there is an increase in the release of β- endorphins following a session of physical activity. As endorphins are connected to positive feelings and a sense of wellbeing, some researchers find this a clear cut, sound hypothesis behind the positive effect of exercise on depression.

The Monoamine Hypothesis seems to be the most convincing in terms of the supposed physiologic mechanism supporting the notion that exercise helps to positively impact those who suffer from depression. This hypothesis suggests that exercise can promote the availability of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, all of which are drastically reduced with depression.

In fact, the highly-coveted Mr. Olympia title was recently won by bodybuilder Shawn Rhoden. His was a hard-won battle and a very well-deserved victory, as he overcame not only the physical obstacles of ensuring he was at his fitness peak, but the mental battles that often go along with that. Rhoden was at an all time low after the death of his father. Suffering from an addiction to alcohol compounded by depression and thoughts of suicide, Rhoden seemingly had a mountain to climb to work through his mental, emotional and physical obstacles. After the death of his father in 2002, and a horrific back injury a few years prior to that, Shawn Rhoden let physical exercise fall to the wayside for six years, and yet, that didn’t hold him back. With the help and support of his friends he made the decision to go to rehab and he eventually made his comeback in the bodybuilding arena, winning the 2009 IFBB North American Competition, making him eligible for his IFBB Pro card. This in and of itself was a monumental victory as it allowed him to take part in cash reward competitions. After a decade of setbacks, Rhoden was back in the game and you could say his determination and the routine exercise that saw his success climb to new heights, together, played a major role in working through his depression. Even the greatest names out there suffer from this condition and depression does not discriminate. As such, it’s insidious nature cannot be understated. Luckily, research focus has for many years, been on the role that exercise and physical activity play in helping people tackle and overcome depression.

Since the early 1900s, researchers have been interested in the effects of exercise on depression and with studies showing promising results in favor of exercise as part of a treatment for the condition, the general consensus might sway in the direction of an overall positive effect being achieved with involvement in regular, structured exercise routines. Perhaps you’re wondering how it might be possible, that a little exercise can help uplift a mood at all. There are many benefits that go along with getting out and moving.

  • Confidence – By setting goals, no matter how ‘small’, and meeting those goals, can help to promote overall feelings of confidence in oneself.
  • Social interaction – Exercising can provide a means of meeting new people in different settings and the socialization alone can help to boost a sense of well-being within.
  • Negative thoughts aren’t at the forefront of the mind – Exercise can help to redirect our focus away from intrusive or overwhelming thoughts which often fuel depression.
  • Structure – Exercise is a planned and structured physical activity which allows the body the repetition of movements to help improve physical fitness and the structure itself can be something to look forward to each day or each week.

With that said, the prospect of beginning an exercise regimen might seem a daunting task, especially if you don’t know where to begin, compounded more so if you’re feeling depressed.  The first order of business is to start by figuring out what you enjoy doing in terms of physical activity. Maybe a short walk is something that brings you a feeling of calm. It could be a bike ride, even if you haven’t ridden a bike in years, if it’s something you enjoyed thoroughly, that might just be your starting point. How about gardening? For the green-thumbs among us, an evening session of working in a garden might not seem like exercise at first but if you’ve ever spent a half hour pulling weeds or mowing the lawn, you’ll know it’s definitely no small feat. Whatever it is that you identify as ‘enjoyable’, make that your starting point and engage in that activity on a regular basis.

Next, get the support of your doctor or mental health professional and seek their guidance. Talk to them about all the options available to you as far as exercise is concerned and what’s appropriate for you as an individual, taking your personal health history into account. They are the people best equipped to help you navigate your depression treatment plan.

After finding out exactly which physical activities will provide you with the most benefits, set your goals. Exercise and physical activity needn’t be brutal and exhausting. Remember, small and reasonable goals would be best in helping you stick to a routine that would be beneficial in the long run. Be realistic about what you’re able to do and begin there. You can always set new goals that challenge you a little more each time along the way. In addition, try not to think of exercise and physical activity as a chore, something that HAS to be done, a means to an end. You want to reap enjoyment from the process of working your way through the depression. By associating physical activity with something you feel you “should” do, is associating it with failure in that, if you don’t meet a goal at some point, the idea that this was something of an expectation, rather than a way to derive pleasure while being physically active can set us up for some disappointment. Instead of exercise as a “should” or “must” try to change the way you view it – a tool to help you get better.

If you find you’re still at a stalemate with physical activity, get to the bottom of what might be causing you reservations. Are you feeling self-conscious? Do you shy away from working out in a gym with other people? Are there financial barriers preventing you from exercising the way you would like? Start small. Try a workout or exercise regimen at home in your living room perhaps. If you need a little boost or someone to help you, find a friend you enjoy being around and they may very well be more than happy to be your workout buddy! Whatever it is that’s preventing you from embarking on a physical activity journey of feeling better within, analyze it, see where it stems from and you might be surprised at how many alternate solutions are available.

One of the most important things to keep in mind, is that there will be obstacles or slight set-backs. If you set small goals and take small steps within your treatment plan, it’s a way to see that a set-back doesn’t have to hold you back for good. If you don’t work out today, there is always tomorrow! Just about any form of physical activity could be a great way to help alleviate symptoms of depression but they must always be talked about first with your therapist or primary care provider as they are the only ones able to help you find your way through depression, and if exercise does play a role too, then that’s awesome; let’s get moving!

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