Millions of Americans suffer from depression. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates approximately 6.7 percent of the population have experienced at least one major depressive episode during any given year. Depression is often treated with pharmaceuticals, which can cause weight gain and other side effects. Mounting evidence suggests exercise may provide better benefits for the body and mind.
Physical and psychological benefits of exercise
Regular exercise has many proven benefits. It’s great for the cardiovascular system, as it strengthens the heart, improves circulation, and lowers blood pressure. Exercise also reduces body fat, which in turn can improve sleep quality. Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as improve overall body image.
A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found obese adults who lost at least 5 percent of their body fat reported better sleep and longer hours after six months of weight loss. Additionally, those who lost weight were shown to have a statistically significantly better mood at 24 months, regardless of how much weight they lost.
Another study found that depressed subjects who participated in a 6-month behavioral weight loss program lost 8 percent of their initial weight reported significant improvements in their depression symptoms. They also had reduced levels of triglycerides, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Studies have long suggested exercise is linked to improved mood due to the release of endorphins, commonly called the “feel-good hormones.” When you exercise, your body releases endorphins; these interact with the pain receptors in the brain, lessening your perception of pain. They also trigger a positive, euphoric feeling in the body, similar to morphine — but without the negative effects of addiction or dependence. This is why people often experience a positive, energizing outlook on life after workouts known as a “runner’s high.”
Moderate or high-intensity exercise?
Current exercise guidelines suggest adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly to maintain or improve their health. Does the intensity of the exercise matter when it comes to mood?
One study compared the release of endorphins during conventional aerobic exercise and HIIT (High-intensity interval training). HIIT is a type of exercise where short bursts of high-intensity activity are broken up by brief periods of less demanding activity. After each exercise session, researchers measured the subjects’ endorphin levels, as well as their endorphin levels after a rest period. The subjects’ mood was also assessed.
Researchers discovered HIIT workouts caused a significant rise in endorphin release compared to aerobic exercise. Endorphins were found to occur in the areas of the brain associated with pain, reward, and emotion. They also found that HIIT caused negative feelings, which they associated with increased endorphin release. The researchers believe the increased negative feelings were linked to dealing with physical activity that’s emotionally and physically challenging.
In contrast, subjects reported feelings of pleasure and euphoria with aerobic exercise. The researchers suggested that moderate endorphin release stimulated by moderate-intensity exercise may promote habitual exercise.
Additional benefits for depression
Not only does exercise release feel-good endorphins, but the physicality of it can help take your mind off negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety. Being able to meet exercise goals and challenges, no matter how small, can also provide a boost of self-confidence and increase feelings of self-control.
Many exercise activities also give you a chance to meet or socialize with others, which can counteract the isolation many people with depression tend to feel. Exercise is also a healthy coping mechanism for when you’re facing emotional or mental challenges in life. Rather than turning to substances or negative behaviors that can make your symptoms worse, exercise boosts your immune system and reduces the impact of stress.
It can be difficult to find the motivation to exercise when you have depression, but at Northern California Medical Associates, we’re here to help. Contact us today to get started on a customized weight loss program designed to help you meet your health goals.