Depression is a common and serious condition, affecting 264 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. It is the leading cause of disability in the world, and leads to billions of dollars in lost revenue for businesses and individuals alike. Depression can even be fatal, as it tragically leads to suicide in many cases. Nearly 800,000 people die by suicide every year, worldwide.
Rates of depression are on the rise this year as we all grapple with the effects of COVID-19 and various social, financial and political issues that are taking the world by storm.
While there is research to support the use of standard depression treatments such as medications and therapy, the truth is, many people do not have access to such treatments. And even among people who do receive medications and therapy, many still do not recover.
There is clearly a need for additional depression treatments that are more accessible and offer relief for those suffering.
Standard mental health treatment often ignores or underemphasizes the importance of lifestyle factors when prescribing treatment for depression, instead relying mostly on medications and talk therapy. While these forms of treatment are important and useful, they should be combined with evidence-based lifestyle changes that are not only shown to improve mental health symptoms, but promote overall wellness too.
Lifestyle psychiatry is an emerging field that focuses on providing science-backed recommendations around diet, exercise, sleep and mindfulness practices to provide better outcomes and a more holistic approach to mental health and wellness.
If you haven’t checked out my previous post on ways to improve your mood with food and nutrition, you can read it here. In today’s article we will explore 5 important questions about using exercise to treat depression, and the research-backed recommendations that you can use to start feeling better today. As always, it is recommended that you do not change or discontinue your current mental health treatment before first discussing you care with your doctor.
1. WHAT TYPE OF EXERCISE SHOULD YOU DO TO IMPROVE YOUR DEPRESSION?
Aerobic exercise is shown in research studies to improve symptoms of depression. While there have been studies showing positive effects of resistance training on depression as well, this form of exercise has not been as well studied.
Some examples of aerobic exercise that you can try include walking, running or jogging, cycling, and dancing.
2. HOW MUCH EXERCISE SHOULD YOU DO TO IMPROVE YOUR DEPRESSION?
Studies show that people who exercise three times per week, 45-60 minutes per session, see the most benefit in terms of improving symptoms of depression.
Keep in mind that if you are new to exercise or feeling unmotivated, you can slowly work your way up to these recommended levels of exercise. The important thing is simply that you start!
3. HOW INTENSE SHOULD YOUR WORKOUT BE TO IMPROVE YOUR DEPRESSION?
The research shows that aerobic exercise should aim for 50-85% of maximum heart rate. Resistance training should incorporate multiple exercises to work both the upper and lower body, completing 3 sets of 8 repetitions per exercise.
4. HOW LONG SHOULD YOU EXERCISE TO SEE AN IMPROVEMENT IN YOUR DEPRESSION?
You can see an improvement in depression symptoms in as little as four weeks. But it is recommended that you continue to exercise at least 10-12 weeks to get the full anti-depressant effect of exercise.
Of course, continuing to incorporate exercise into your life beyond the 10-12 weeks is ideal, as exercise has a wide variety of health and mental health benefits including weight management, prevention of various chronic diseases, and even prevention of depression in late life.
5. HOW CAN YOU STICK WITH AN EXERCISE REGIMEN WHILE YOU ARE FEELING DEPRESSED?
People with depression commonly struggle with energy and motivation, which can understandably make sticking with an exercise regimen challenging.
To improve your chances of incorporating exercise into your life, choose activities that you enjoy and do what you can. Though not emphasized in the research analysis cited in this article, there are other studies that show that gentler exercises such as yoga and stretching can improve symptoms of depression too. And even doing the recommended aerobic exercises for less time and intensity can be beneficial and is worthwhile.
Other strategies include exercising with another person for support and accountability. Seeking the support from a mental health professional who can assess your readiness to change your lifestyle can also be helpful.
The bottom line is, when you’re ready, you can incorporate exercise into your lifestyle and fight back against depression, on your own terms. Every bit is a worthwhile step forward in your recovery.
You’ve got this!
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Rethorst CD, Trivedi MH. Evidence-based recommendations for the prescription of exercise for major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Practice. 2013 May;19(3):204-212.
World Health Organization Depression Overview. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression