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Exercise as the Ultimate Antidepressant

Active older woman with a smile

Getty/Ridofranz

Research shows that exercise is an important way to both prevent and treat depression. Try these tips to help find the motivation to get your body moving.

Given what we know about the consequences of untreated depression and the relative lack of effective pharmaceutical treatment options, it’s vital that we consider other ways to manage the ailment. 

Exercise is finally getting the nod. In 2013, the rigorous reviewers at the Cochrane Library, which houses a collection of databases in medicine and other healthcare specialties, concluded that exercise is effective at helping reduce symptoms of depression. A more current review of the available literature on depression and exercise in the elderly was published in 2016. It examined three meta-analyses and concluded that “exercise is safe and efficacious in reducing depressive symptoms in older people. Since exercise has many other known health benefits, it should be considered as a core intervention in the multidisciplinary treatment of older adults experiencing depression.” 

To be clear, not only is depression debilitating in its own right but, as we know, inflammation is also strongly associated with the condition’s development.

It’s good to know that exercise may be a safe and effective treatment for depression. But it’s even more inspiring to think that it might prevent depression. A 2017 paper described a study that followed, for eleven years, approximately forty thousand adults who were free of any mental health diagnosis. It found that regular leisure-time exercise was associated with a reduced risk of depression. Based on the strength of this relationship, the authors proposed that even one hour of physical activity a week could prevent 12 percent of future depression cases. 

Powerful therapy indeed.

These types of studies are correlative, not causal. This means we can’t be sure whether depressed people tend to avoid exercise or if people who exercise only infrequently have a high likelihood of becoming depressed. But when a 2019 study conducted by researchers at Harvard University instead suggested that too little physical activity causes depression, it took the media by storm. 

The study, involving hundreds of thousands of people, concluded that jogging for fifteen minutes a day, (or walking or gardening for a little longer), can help protect against depression. The scientists used a cutting-edge research technique called Mendelian randomization, which provides evidence about causal relations between modifiable risk factors—in this case, amount of exercise—and a health issue such as depression. We won’t get into the details of this kind of study other than to say that it’s useful in finding cause-and-effect relationships in medicine that are otherwise hard to identify or prove. But the researchers’ conclusion, that “enhancing physical activity may be an effective prevention strategy for depression,” is revolutionary.

Although many factors play a role in the development of depression, no doubt at center stage is inflammation. Exercise’s anti-inflammatory effects on the body have a profound impact on metabolism, hormonal cues such as cortisol levels, and brain function, including executive function and cognition powers — all of which affect your mood. When you move, you put your prefrontal cortex in the driver’s seat. Ask regular exercisers if they feel connected to and in control of their bodies, and you will hear a resounding yes. And choosing regular exercise becomes much easier once you begin to reconnect to that prefrontal cortex. 

Let your executive function lead the way.

Read more about the hidden benefits of exercise.

Find the Motivation

What if you hate exercise? How do you get yourself to do it? There’s no easy answer, but you have to find your own motivators to get yourself off the couch. Some tips:

  • Enlist the help of a friend and plan sessions together (e.g., go hiking or take a class). Again, this is like giving yourself a double dose of medicine. You’re exercising. You’re engaging in a real conversation with someone. And if you do it outdoors, that’s a triple dose, because you’ve got nature in the mix.
  • Join an online class, download an exercise video, or use an app that tracks your exercise habits.
  • Lay out your workout clothes before bedtime and plan to exercise first thing in the morning.
  • Schedule your workouts a week in advance and block them out on your calendar. Commit to your schedule. You will never find time for exercise if you don’t make time for it.
  • Consider taking a vitamin D supplement (more on this in the ten-day plan). Data show that it may help exercise performance, and that may further inspire you to stick with your regimen.

Excerpted from Brain Wash © 2019 by David Perlmutter, MD and Austin Perlmutter, MD. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York.  All rights reserved.


By David Perlmutter, MD, and Austin Perlmutter, MD. Click here for more!

This entry is tagged with:
ExerciseDepressionBrain Health

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