Research finds that exercise is an effective method for managing the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress across numerous populations. While the benefits of exercise are generally recognized for physical health, they’re often overlooked in the management of mental health disorders.
One out of every eight people worldwide has a mental health disorder. These disorders are commonly treated with antidepressants. For some patients, antidepressant medications have undesirable side effects, such as gastrointestinal disorders, loss of sex drive, and weight gain.
Because of potential side effects, the cost of medications, and difficulty finding the right medication, many with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety seek alternative treatment options.
Compared with medications, exercise has been shown to be a low-cost and healthier alternative for effectively boosting mental health, making it a viable treatment option for depression or anxiety.
How Exercise Improves Mental Health
Since 1994, exercise has demonstrated promise as a treatment for mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Physiologically, exercise mediates the activity of serotonin receptors, which are associated with an antidepressant effect and responsible for the feeling of happiness.
Brain imaging has revealed that depression is linked to structural factors, including reductions in brain volume in the frontal and temporal lobes. These brain regions are responsible for emotional regulation, learning, and memory.
Physical activity has been shown to promote brain volume, particularly in those more susceptible to volume reduction. Increased blood flow to the brain delivers more biomolecules that improve brain cell growth and development. One such molecule, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), has been shown to increase with moderate exercise.
How Inflammation Causes Depression
Recent research has shown that exercise not only has a positive impact on brain physiology but also reduces inflammation in the body. This is significant because inflammation has been linked to the development of depression and other mood disorders. By reducing inflammation through exercise, individuals may be able to improve their mental health and overall well-being.
A recent meta-analysis found elevated ranges of inflammatory biomarkers in blood samples of depressed patients. Depression can create a pro-inflammatory state in the body, which puts people with depression at risk for other health complications.
Depression may cause people to make poor food choices, overeat, and avoid regular physical activity. These behaviors can cause weight gain and lead to obesity.
Obesity causes chronic inflammation in the body, which can lead to other health issues such as diabetes, cancer, and heart conditions.
Obesity and depression were found in a recent study to have a cyclic relationship: People living with obesity are 55 percent more likely to develop depression than individuals who aren’t obese, and individuals who are depressed are 58 percent more likely to become obese than individuals who don’t have depression.
Physical exercise has been shown to reduce inflammation within the body, which can help reduce symptoms of depression.
While specific mechanisms are still unclear, adults who exercise have been shown to have reduced levels of IL-6, a key inflammatory molecule, and elevated IL-6 has been implicated in depression. Blood samples taken from 116 adults who reported mild-to-moderate depression showed a reduction in IL-6 levels after three 60-minute exercise sessions for 12 weeks, with a significant reduction in depression severity.
Exercise Boosts Brainpower and Mood
Cognitive deficits have been found in people with depression. Struggling to process and use information can cause depression to worsen.
Common cognitive impairments in patients with depression include deficits in attention, executive functioning, and memory. These cognitive impairments are found even after a person’s depression goes away.
The remediation of cognitive impairment and alleviation of depressive symptoms each play an important role in improving outcomes for patients with depression. Therefore, cognitive impairment represents a core feature of depression that can’t be discounted and may be a valuable target for future interventions.
Exercise was shown to increase academic performance in children, improve learning and memory in adults, and prevent cognitive decline in the elderly. These cognitive benefits are connected to the physiological changes that occur with exercise: an increase in blood flow to the brain, an increase in brain volume in key brain regions, and a reduction of inflammation in the body.
Children who exercise regularly have demonstrated increased performance in subjects such as math, reading, and language. This is thought to be a result of how exercise facilitates the activity of different brain networks.
In older women, an exercise regimen using both resistance bands and walking for three 60-minute sessions per week was shown to reduce symptoms of depression, improve cognitive function, and increase BDNF levels. Resistance band training and walking are both low-impact activities, making them accessible to a wide range of people.
While exercise has been clinically proven to resolve depression in a variety of patient populations, regular exercise can also be used to prevent depression and anxiety. In the general population, regular exercise of any intensity has been shown to provide protection against depression.
While most studies examining exercise as a preventative tool against depression and anxiety have focused on adults, more research is needed to examine its effectiveness for children and adolescents. However, five small clinical trials have also demonstrated that exercise reduced reported depression in healthy children.
Exercise methods such as tai chi, low-impact exercise, aerobic exercise, and weight training offer a wide range of physical and mental health benefits. Exercise is a viable treatment option for depression and anxiety, and it’s important to overall mental health and well-being.