Exercise can help you cope with symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Imagine sitting still for an hour. Or two hours, or three or four. Maybe you can move your arms around and fidget your legs, but nothing else. You’re developing the sort of headache and neck ache that only come from staring at a screen in the same uncomfortable position for too long. You might even be acutely aware of your feet sweating, or the itchiness of your scalp.
Now contrast this with the feeling of stepping into the sunshine and taking a satisfying stretch. Those first moments of the sun hitting your face can be one of life’s most enjoyable experiences, and it’s no wonder they can contribute meaningfully to your emotional well-being.
Everyone knows that exercise is an important element in maintaining physical fitness. Less obvious is the equally important role that it can play in maintaining psychological fitness, but these benefits too have been well documented. There are countless anecdotes and formal studies singing the praises of exercise and its effects on mental as well as physical health. For some people, the idea that exercise and depression relief are connected might be a welcome thought. For other people, the thought of some kind of mandated exercise regimen as a treatment for depression or anxiety might feel like piling a load of sand on top of the load of emotional bricks they’re already carrying. Exercise anxiety may prevent someone who is struggling with depression from pursuing a course of behavioral modification that could make a big difference. So how are exercise and depression linked?
To be clear, exercise doesn’t have to mean training for a marathon, or two-hour weightlifting sessions at the gym. Even fifteen to thirty minutes of walking a few times per week have been observed to make a difference in the severity of depression symptoms. Physical movement releases endorphins, a hormone that replicates the sense of well-being that might be more commonly associated with some narcotics like opioids or cannabis. Perhaps you’ve heard of a “runner’s high,” the sense of equanimity and well-being that runners sometimes experience. This flood of endorphins can persist after the completion of a workout and set the tone for the rest of the day.
Exercise can also serve as a useful distraction. When engaged in physical activity, especially an outdoor activity, your attention is drawn to both the execution of that activity and your physical surroundings. If you’re hiking in the woods, chances are you’ll be more focused on the beauty of the forest and avoiding stubbing your toe on a rock than on the thought patterns that generally accompany depressive thinking.
Many exercises can also lead to inclusion in a community and increased interpersonal interaction. Group runs, dance classes, and hiking clubs all exist around a shared interest. As you discover what types of physical activities you enjoy, you have a free pass to new friendships with other like-minded people who enjoy the same things you do. Increased connection with other people can serve an important therapeutic function when it comes to managing depression.
Exercise can help create deliberate, ordered thinking.
Exercise requires a level of deliberate thinking. Few people will be in the middle of their day and, on a whim, decide to hop on their bike and go for a spin. Even exercises that last fifteen minutes generally work best if planned beforehand. This deliberate, mindful, routine-building approach to exercise can carry over into other aspects of life as you get good at it, helping to combat the kind of disordered thinking and malaise that can accompany depression and anxiety.
Also inherent in an established exercise routine is the process of improvement. If you practice shooting free-throws a few times per week, you’ll get better at it. If you go jogging for fifteen minutes a few times per week, you’ll soon find that you can run for twenty minutes, then thirty, and before you know it, you’ll be looking forward to your hour run. Established workout routines also encourage goal setting. To stick with the running example, if you’ve realized you can run a mile, it won’t be long before you start wondering how fast you can run that mile. If you decide that running a mile in nine minutes is a good place to start, you can then plan out steps or routines that will help you accomplish that goal. And when you succeed, you’ll be proud and eager to plan your next goal. This is yet another area in which exercise and depression treatment, or exercise and anxiety treatment, can overlap. The feeling of accomplishment and moving ahead can be extremely helpful for people with depression, and the thrill of accomplishing exercise goals can easily carry over into accomplishing goals in other areas in life.
Maybe you’re not a runner. Or a cyclist, or a basketball player. Maybe, when you wonder what exercise might suit you, you draw a giant blank. The good news is that the benefits from exercise can also be derived from activities like taking a walk or gardening. While a dedicated, planned exercise routine will produce sure benefits, the basic idea of being outdoors and moving your body can be applied in a million different ways. Don’t let the thought of beginning a new activity become so daunting that you become paralyzed and wind up doing nothing. Almost anyone is capable of some kind of gentle, relaxing physical activity.
When you are jumping into a new routine, talking over your plans with your doctor or therapist is a great idea. They may be able to offer advice and suggestions, and alert you to specific challenges you might face.
If you’re struggling with a psychological condition like major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, being outside and moving your body has so much to offer. From the sense of achievement that comes with improvement in an activity, to the endorphin rush and the opportunity to introduce a positive structure into your life, creating and maintaining an exercise routine can help you cope with your symptoms. And while a walk around the block won’t cure your symptoms permanently, it can offer temporary relief and lead you to build healthy coping habits. These habits in turn can transform what feels like an insurmountable obstacle into a climb you feel confident taking one step at a time.
Ströhle, A. (2009). Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders. Journal of Neural Transmission (Vienna, Austria : 1996), 116(6), 777–784. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1007/s00702-008-0092-x