Clinical depression affects about 15 million adult Americans each year. The illness is characterized by a persistent low mood, a loss of interest in typically pleasurable activities, fatigue, insomnia, poor concentration and feelings of worthlessness. It is more severe and persistent than a simple down mood, and is one of the leading causes of disability and death around the world, according to the World Health Organization.
Depression is usually treated with antidepressant medications and psychotherapy. Both have proven to be effective in helping most people. Antidepressants are not addictive and have relatively few side-effects. Several types of psychotherapy have proven to be effective, with Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy being the most researched.
But research has also demonstrated the effectiveness of a third treatment approach. We all know the benefits of physical exercise for our physical health, but recent studies have shown that it can be just as important for our mental health.
Several major studies have compared the benefits of physical exercise, antidepressant medications and psychotherapy for people suffering from depression. The findings show consistently that regular physical exercise can be as effective as medication and counseling for mild to moderate depression. People with more severe depression will often need a combination of the three treatment approaches. When the depressed person adds moderate exercise to their treatment efforts, the improvement can be dramatic.
Some studies have tried to determine how much exercise is enough to treat depression, but the results are still unclear. Some findings suggest that 30 to 45 minutes of aerobic activity, such as walking, running or cycling, three to five times per week is necessary.
Any exercise creates a change in our body chemistry, including oxygen levels, neurochemicals and hormones. Some studies suggest that exercise mimics the effects of antidepressants. If you’re already taking an antidepressant, exercise can boost its effectiveness.
So, we know that physical exercise can help relieve clinical depression. The problem is that, when we’re depressed, exercise is the last thing we want to do. When we’re depressed, we don’t feel like exercising, we don’t even feel like getting out of bed. The idea of getting up and exercising for 30 to 45 minutes can feel like climbing Mount Everest.
So begin with small steps. Walk down your driveway or once around your block. Just walk around your house and go back inside. Try to move more inside the house. Any movement counts. Do what you can do at first, then try to increase gradually over time. It will take a little time to see results, but if you’re persistent, they will come.
Depression is painful, often debilitating and sometimes deadly. If you think you are experiencing depression, consult with your healthcare provider. Medications and psychotherapy can be very effective. But in addition to other treatment efforts, try to make yourself get up and get moving. You’ll be glad you did.