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How Exercise Can Prevent Depression

Science and anecdotal evidence agree that  just a few minutes of exercise per day can boost your current mood and protect against future bouts of depression.

By
Brock Armstrong
8-minute read
Episode #480
Photo of a woman lying on a yoga ball in her exercise clothes
The Quick And Dirty
  • Any movement that raises your heart rate, challenges your muscles and teases your mobility can qualify as exercise.
  • Even simply going for a walk can encourage your body to release endorphins that contain mood-boosting properties.
  • A 2018 study showed that you only need 60 minutes of exercise per week to reap the mood-boosting benefits (although, I encourage you to get more)

Even if your gym, rec center, pool or dance class is unavailable, it's still possible, not to mention important, to get your body up and moving. Doing activities that raise your heart rate, challenge your muscles, and move your body beyond its normal range of motion (challenging your mobility, coordination, and balance) not only helps you stay fit but can also boost your mood, lower stress levels, and even prevent future bouts of depression.

Even simple aerobic exercises walking, housework, or playing with your kids or pets can encourage your body to release endorphins.

It's true—even simple aerobic exercises like walking, housework, or playing with your kids or pets can encourage your body to release endorphins. Endorphins are a group of hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system that trigger a number of almost magical physiological functions. Those wondrous functions include reducing pain and stress, warding off anxiety and feelings of depression, boosting self-esteem, and even improving sleep.

With direct benefits like that, it’s not hard to imagine how exercise can help manage depression. And luckily, thanks to the scientists at The American Psychiatric Association, we don’t have to imagine—we have research.

Exercise and the prevention of depression

A recent study on exercise and the prevention of depression aimed to determine whether or not exercise provides protection against new-onset depression. It also aimed to pinpoint the intensity and amount of exercise required to gain that protection, and how exactly the protection might work.

To do this the researchers examined 33,908 adults, selected on the basis of having no symptoms of common mental disorders or limiting physical health conditions. The researchers followed them for 11 years. They collected measures of exercise, depression, and anxiety, along with a range of potential confounding and mediating factors.

Regular exercise of any intensity does indeed provide protection against future depression.

What they concluded was that regular exercise of any intensity does indeed provide protection against future depression. Even relatively modest changes in levels of exercise may have “important public mental health benefits and prevent a surprisingly high number of new cases of depression.”

The study suggests that 12 percent of future cases of depression could have been prevented if the participants had engaged in at least one hour of physical activity each week. Interestingly, the majority of the protective effects occurred at low levels of exertion and were observed regardless of intensity.

The HUNT Study

Another study (the HUNT cohort study) followed thousands of participants in Norway for 9-13 years. They found volunteers by inviting the entire population, aged 20 or older, to fill out a basic screening form for depression and anxiety. After reviewing the submissions, they invited the happiest 70 percent to participate. 8,400 were excluded due to serious physical illness, which left nearly 34,000 in the study.

Potentially confounding data, such as smoking status, BMI, resting heart rate, and demographic data were collected at various visits over the years. Blood pressure, heart rate, weight, height, and waist and hip circumferences were measured by specially-trained nurses. The research team also accounted for variables that might impact the association between exercise and common mental illness. These included socio-economic and demographic factors, substance use, new onset physical illness, and perceived social support. In the end, about 22,500 participants completed the study.

At the beginning of the study, all participants were asked to report their frequency of weekly exercise and their degree of aerobic intensity using three different categories:

  1. Without becoming breathless or sweating
  2. Becoming breathless and sweating
  3. Exhausting themselves

During the follow-up stage of the study, participants completed a self-report questionnaire (using the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale) to indicate whether the subject was experiencing any anxiety or depression during the years of the study.

The correlation between exercise and depression

In a nutshell, at the end of the study, those participants who exercised were less likely to develop depression than those who didn’t. The cool thing is, it didn’t matter how much exercise they did as long as they did some kind of “deliberate physical activity” for a minimum of an hour per week.

Yup, only one hour of exercise for the entire week and it also did not matter how intense that exercise was. It could be a leisurely bike ride, CrossFit, spin class or yoga. We’ll get into some other creative options in a bit.

It didn’t matter how much exercise [study participants] did as long as they did some kind of “deliberate physical activity” for a minimum of an hour per week.

Research author Samuel Harvey from Black Dog Institute and UNSW stated:

We've known for some time that exercise has a role to play in treating symptoms of depression, but this is the first time we have been able to quantify the preventative potential of physical activity in terms of reducing future levels of depression. These findings are exciting because they show that even relatively small amounts of exercise—from one hour per week—can deliver significant protection against depression.

That's good news for all of us who just can't or don’t want to commit to a daily and lengthy gym session or can’t even imagine signing up to run a marathon.

Staying on an exercise Routine

The social and physical health benefits of exercise partially explain the shielding of depression, but the research also reported that some biological mechanisms, like alterations in the vagal tone, did not appear to have a role in protecting against depression.

If the social benefits of exercise make the real impact, it would appear that simply getting out and about, getting your heart rate up, and engaging in some active self-care is what makes the real difference. Although the researchers felt that could be the case, a lot still remains unexplained.

People with mental health issues may struggle to get enough exercise in the first place. So it could be a chicken-and-egg scenario: which comes first, the lack of exercise or the depression?

There is also a question of whether there's actually a "reverse causation" going on—people with mental health issues may struggle to get enough exercise in the first place. So it could be a chicken-and-egg scenario: which comes first, the lack of exercise or the depression?

The thought here is that if we're sick, blue, or overwhelmed, it's our lunchtime workout or our morning jog that is the first thing to get taken off of the to-do list. But the data suggests that if we maintain even a brief schedule of light activity, we lower the chances of developing depression in the future. And you don’t even have to step foot in a gym to make it happen.

These results drive home the need to integrate exercise into mental health plans and into broader public health campaigns. If we can find ways to increase the population's level of physical activity, even by a small amount, we will likely see substantial physical and mental health benefits across the board.

With sedentary lifestyles becoming the norm worldwide, and rates of depression being on the rise, these results are particularly important since they highlight that, once again, even a small lifestyle change can lead to significant mental health benefits.

How to exercise and prevent depression

Well first, 60 minutes per week works out to 8.5714 minutes per day. You could even round that up to 10 minutes per day to make it easy and potentially give yourself one day per week where if you get too busy, forget, or otherwise miss your mental health workout, you're still on track. But what can you do with 8-10 minutes per day? Well, let me tell you!

Even a small lifestyle change can lead to significant mental health benefits.

Go for a walk

Let’s start with an easy one. The researchers pointed out several times that intensity was not a factor, so why not just get up from your desk, your recliner, even out from behind your standing workstation and go for a 10- or 15-minute walk.

Do Tabata sets

A Tabata set involves alternating between a high-intensity and an anaerobic exercise for 20 seconds (hard), followed by 10 seconds (easy), for a total of four minutes. So, you could even do this twice! This has not only been shown to be a great way to get fit but it can also boost your mood and clear your head. You could even do this a few times, spread out over the day, to give your body and your mood a boost when you need it.

The Scientific 7-Minute Workout

The New York Times made this workout famous a few years ago. It involves 12 bodyweight moves that require only a chair, some floor space, and a wall, to combine cardio and resistance training into about seven minutes of mood-boosting discomfort.

Throw a ball or a frisbee around

Why not make it fun? Grab a friend or two and head for a park, ice rink, or a large parking lot and toss a baseball, football, hockey puck, or frisbee around. I am willing to bet that not all of your throws will be exactly on target, so aside from the throwing and catching, there will probably be some running and likely some shouting and laughing as well.

Exercise in nature

Some research published in Feb 2020 from an interdisciplinary team at Cornel has found that spending as little as 10 minutes in a natural setting can make us feel happier while lessening the effects of both physical and mental stress. The researchers found that 10-50 minutes in a natural setting was the most effective amount of time needed to improve mood, focus, and physiological markers like blood pressure and heart rate.

Don't drive when you can walk

Is there a way you can avoid sitting in traffic, in a car, or on a bus, and get some exercise instead? I am sure there is. You can park further from the door, get off the bus a few stops early, ride your bike to work or walk (at least part of the way). I am a huge believer in adopting a car-less mindset, even if you don’t want to sell your old clunker and become a pedal-estrian.

Do some Yoga

Exercise scientists have known for decades that aerobic exercise strengthens the brain and contributes to the growth of new neurons, but a new study has examined how yoga affects the brain. A 2019 research article showed that the brain changes seen in individuals practicing yoga are associated with not only better performance on cognitive tests but also on measures of emotional regulation, stress reduction, anxiety, and depression.

Coach Brock’s Quickies

I have a few Quicky Workouts that I do when I am pressed for time. When I only have 10-minutes to boost my heart rate and my mood, this is my favorite:

Instructions

Complete this routine as a circuit, one time through, with minimal rest between exercises. No warm-up required.

  • 20 Body Weight Squats
  • 10 Lunge Jumps per side
  • 10 Side Plank Rotations
  • 10 Front Plank Taps
  • 10 Lateral Lunges per side
  • 10 Squat Jumps
  • 25 Kickouts per Side
  • Finish with 60-second Squat Hold

Then shake it out, do some light stretching and get on with your day!

The link between exercise and mood

In a previous Get-Fit Guy article called How Exercise Affects Your Brain, we looked into how studies show that low levels of the two neurotransmitters, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), often lead to depression. But according to a study in The Journal of Neuroscience, moderate exercise can increase these levels which can result in increased resilience and a capacity to respond to mental challenges.

And to drive my point home, according to the Mayo Clinic, exercise helps prevent and improve a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis, which is wonderful. But their ongoing research on depression and exercise also shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can help improve mood.

Finally, even though the links between depression and exercise aren't entirely clear, what's clear is that working out, pumping iron, hitting the bricks, pounding the pavement, and all other forms of getting your body moving can definitely ease symptoms of depression, protect against future episodes of depression, and just make you feel darn good.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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