Exercise and Depression: What’s the Connection?

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Depression is a condition that affects many people in different ways. While the root cause of depression can be complex and unique to each individual, some evidence suggests exercise may help improve symptoms. So let’s take a closer look at the connection between exercise and depression.

What is Depression?

Depression, also referred to as major depressive disorder, is defined as more than just feeling sad or experiencing a low mood. Instead, it is characterized by an overwhelming sense of sadness that lasts for weeks at a time. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair and issues with sleep, appetite, and concentration.

Symptoms of Depression:

  • Sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed (anhedonia)
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Loss of concentration
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

These symptoms must be present for at least two weeks to be diagnosed with depression. However, some people experience major depressive disorder without experiencing any feelings of sadness. Instead, they may experience the following feelings every day:

  • Worthlessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Problems with sleep
  • Feeling “slowed down” or restless
  • Indecisiveness

If you think you may be suffering from depression, the best thing you can do is to talk to a medical professional.

Exercise and depression seem like an odd pairing at first glance, but research reveals that exercise may help improve symptoms of depression. Exercise has been found to trigger changes in the brain chemicals serotonin and endorphins (natural opioids). Exercise also reduces stress and anxiety, two emotions that are often associated with depression. Additional benefits of exercise are:

  • Improved sleep patterns
  • Reduced fatigue
  • A stronger sense of self-esteem or body image

However, it is important to remember that everyone’s experience with depression is different. Therefore, exercise should never be used as a replacement for professional treatment or medication, but it can be an effective supplement to other care.

Some people find relief from their depression symptoms after only a few weeks of exercise, while it takes months or even longer for others. Exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous to be helpful. Exercise can include anything from a short walk to a dance class, and it is usually best when you do something that you enjoy.

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