The oldest recorded workouts occurred some 3,000 years ago. Since then, exercise has come a long way as one of the healthiest activities we can engage in. In fact, exercise is one of only a handful of things that can be done at home to help reduce and manage depression. The link between exercise and depression as a treatment and illnesses is well established.
Exercise and depression have a profound effect on essentially every system in the body, not the least of which is the brain. Likewise, working out and maintaining a healthy diet can improve neurological function and mood; this is primarily done because of endorphins and changes to brain tissue.
Endorphins are a naturally occurring brain chemical that acts as a mood enhancer and anesthetic. When we exercise, our bodies produce a rush of endorphins that bind to opioid receptors to produce various effects. In addition to enhancing mood, endorphins improve sex drive, general wellbeing, and life outlook.
Neurotrophy relates to the health of brain tissue. Healthy brain tissue improves neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and adapt, is crucial to learning and making new neural connections. To some degree, a healthy brain allows a person to “think” their way out of depression.
For example, a depressed person may consider only their shortcomings in life, but with a healthy, active brain, they may also consider all the positives. Often, it’s more nuanced than a single thought, but healthy brain tissues increase the odds of happiness.
WHAT IS DEPRESSION?
Depression is a persistent feeling of sadness, hopelessness, and overall poor mental health. While everyone experiences depression at some point, those with clinical depression experience it more frequently and with higher intensity.
SIGNS OF DEPRESSION
The most common signs of depression are as follows:
- Low energy: This symptom can manifest as an inability to leave the bed or accomplish everyday tasks.
- Brain fog: This symptom is characterized as forgetfulness or general difficulty finishing thoughts or making sense of events and surroundings. Brain fog occurs due to an excess of white matter clogging the neural pathways.
- Irritability: Depression can make a person short on patience and politeness. The result is irritability and rudeness.
HOW IS DEPRESSION DIAGNOSED?
A licensed psychologist or medical provider can diagnose clinical depression. The diagnoses can come after several therapy sessions or based on a patient’s self-described symptoms. Unfortunately, many times, depression goes undiagnosed due to a person’s lack of medical resources, ability to hide their depressive symptoms, or co-occurring disorders.
THE LINK BETWEEN EXERCISE AND DEPRESSION
Exercise makes a person feel more confident and encourages their neural pathways to make more connections. One of the most significant benefits of exercise is increasing cognitive functions—exercise results in mental clarity and improved moods. An exercise routine can also help counteract sleep deprivation and other sleep ailments like restless leg syndrome.
Anxiety, the continuous feeling of worry and inadequacy, begins in the brain’s emotional centers and extends to impact the amygdala. The amygdala is an essential part of the frontal lobe that controls emotion and planning. Anxiety causes a decrease in serotonin, GABA, and other essential brain chemicals responsible for mood regulation. Exercise counteracts the effects of depression on the amygdala. It stimulates the frontal lobe.
Depression dampens life outlook and cognitive capacity. It causes an overproduction of several neurochemicals related to stress and sadness. Exercise increases happy chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine, which in turn improve mood and hormonal regulation.
Exercise and depression affect mental health in almost opposite ways. For example, depression increases the likelihood of sleep deprivation while exercise decreases the same likelihood. It can be argued the connection between exercise and depression is lifelong. A person with clinical depression and anxiety will always feel worse when out of an exercise regimen and better when in one. This factor means that when considering which exercise or sport to engage in, it is beneficial to consider long-term applications, try to find an activity that can be done well into old age, or be prepared to switch exercises at a certain point.
EMOTIONAL BENEFITS OF EXERCISE
The emotional benefits of exercise are as follows:
Depression and anxiety erode self-esteem and lead to negative thoughts. Exercise can provide a break from these thoughts while also offering an opportunity to develop a person’s physical stature. Not every individual with depression is out of shape but maintaining an exercise routine will boost positive brain chemicals and life outlook.
It’s entirely possible to build a solid workout routine at home. However, joining a gym, fitness club, or other group activities is a great way to make new, healthy friends. Humans are by nature social creatures and spending extended amounts of time alone is detrimental to mental health. By joining a fitness group, a person gains a support system that can develop into true friendships.
Additionally, social interactions can counteract many of the negative thoughts that come with depression. Good friends will highlight a person’s best traits such as funny, caring, attentive, etc., traits that individuals with depression and anxiety may be unaware they possess.
Mental illnesses like depression or anxiety can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as withdrawal, substance abuse, and more. Developing positive coping techniques allows a person to recover from setbacks and challenges quicker and limit the reach of setbacks. For example, if a person copes by drinking, they will have to deal with hangovers and worsening depression, making it difficult to work or have relationships.
However, if a person copes by exercising or other healthy choices, they deal with the problem without adding more negativity. Thus, coping is an essential part of overcoming any challenge in life with or without mental illness.
Individuals with depression and anxiety have low energy levels for many reasons—exercise boosts energy levels and, therefore, motivation. In addition, motivation from exercise extends beyond just physical endeavors. Motivated individuals are more likely to excel in their careers, relationships, and hobbies. The motivation and will to do things impacts many aspects of life, and having the energy to see things through can boost confidence and long-term gains.
HOW TO GET STARTED
Building an exercise routine doesn’t happen overnight. It takes commitment, research, and time to become effective. A key part of building a workout routine is finding an enjoyable one. To a point, working out should be fun, not just labor. If an individual can’t commit to a gym schedule, then yoga, running, sports, and more are viable alternatives. Once the proper workout is found, here’s how to make the most of it.
SET REASONABLE GOALS
Setting a reasonable goal is essential to any endeavor but especially exercise. It’s unhealthy to compare an individual’s body to fitness gurus, actors, or even friends. Everyone’s muscle mass and ability to change weight are different.
A more petite person will have difficulty gaining mass, whereas a more prominent person may have trouble keeping weight off. Plus, many people on the covers of magazines have years of experience working out with tailored workouts. If you’re just starting to work out, consider gaining or losing two to three pounds in a month as an admirable accomplishment.
Don’t attempt to change weights before your body is ready. Simply put, working out consistently is guaranteed to show results. Therefore, it is best to focus on committing to the workout and diet instead of the numbers on any machine.
DO NOT OVER-EXERCISE
Over-exercising can lead to several injuries, including torn muscles, bone damage, and more. A common misconception is that every workout has to push a person to their absolute limit or that working out every day is beneficial – these claims are false. Rest and recovery are as important as working out. Plus, injury keeps you out of the gym longer.
It is vital to know your limitations. Understanding what your body is capable of can prevent injury and helps focus training on areas of improvement. It can also help you find the proper workout for you.
PREPARE FOR SETBACKS
There will be setbacks on any fitness journey. Some days weights will seem heavier, and your performance may be less than it usually is. However, knowing when to rest and having healthy coping mechanisms can ensure that you’ll be injury-free in the long run.
GET PROFESSIONAL HELP TO FIGURE OUT
No matter how much online research you do, there will still be blind spots in any workout routine. Physical fitness requires doing the exercise to truly learn from it and understand what works for you. For example, the way you hold your arms during a pushup or pullup will be somewhat individual to your skeletal structure. Do not be afraid to work with a fitness trainer to save yourself time and minimize injury while maximizing results.
- Intensity: Not every workout will be intense. Ensuring that you’re at least breaking a sweat increases the number of calories burned and helps shock your muscles into growth. But don’t overdo it.
- Analyze diet: Diet is 70% of any workout routine. Eating right improves your energy levels for workouts and helps your body adjust to the physical changes. A fitness trainer or nutritionist can help you develop a workout plan that suits your long-term goals.
- Motivation: Staying motivated isn’t always easy. Having a trainer there to keep your commitment high can boost your enjoyment of the gym and help keep you to a set schedule.
Exercise boosts the connection between body and brain while also providing better energy levels and sleep quality. For these benefits and more, make exercise a regular part of your daily routine.
The information presented on this page is a general overview and is offered here as a resource. At Ampelis Health, each client meets with our medical team to determine treatment protocols based on individual circumstances.
If you would like to learn more about Ampelis Health or have additional questions, feel free to call.
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