How to Use Exercise to Alleviate Depression and Anxiety

Anxiety and depression are not fun, and they can be downright debilitating. Approximately 15 million Americans over the age of 18 suffer from depression.

Antidepressants are now the first go-to for many doctors and therapists, but there is another, side-effect free way to treat depression and anxiety: Exercise.

Research has found that exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants in improving mood and outlook. It does so through the release of “feel-good” endorphins and chemicals in the brain.

The great thing about exercise for mood elevation is that the results can be almost instantaneous.

“The problem with exercise for health is you have to wait nine months to a year for results, before your abs and your hips look better. It’s a tremendous commitment,” Michael Otto, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of psychology explained to BU Today. “The beauty of exercising for mood is you get the payoff right now. The other kicker is, being in a bad mood is why a lot of people don’t exercise, and this becomes precisely the reason to exercise.”

Some Basic Guidelines for Exercise as an Antidepressant

So, we know exercise can help with anxiety and depression. But how much? What type of exercise? Researchers have created some recommendations for clinicians on “prescribing” exercise for patients. These recommendations include:

1. Three to Five Exercise Sessions Per Week

Try to exercise at least three times per week, and if possible, do something aerobic to reach a heart rate of 50-85% of your maximum heart rate.

2. Resistance Training

Resistance training generally means weight training, but it can be other types of resistance exercise. Vary the exercise between the upper and lower body, and “three sets of eight repetitions at 80 percent of the maximum weight that the person can lift one time,” according to PsychCentral.

3. Committing to 10-12 Weeks of Working Out

While even one session of exercise can lift someone’s mood, for long-term relief, commit to a consistent program. The exercise plan should continue for at least 10-12 weeks before throwing in the towel. Ideally, the program will simply continue as an ongoing exercise program to maintain health and mood.

Other Ways to Use Exercise to Elevate Mood

You don’t have to become a gym rat to benefit from mood-improving exercise. Any sort of physical activity, from gardening to cleaning out the garage, can actually help fight depression. Simply going for a 10-15 walk can have tremendous benefits.

The biggest challenge is to overcome the inertia of the depression to get started. This is where having a workout buddy can help. Try to find a friend or neighbor to go for a walk with you. The social interaction will also have positive mental health benefits.

Exercise: An Important Part of Any Depression Treatment Program

Whether or not your doctor is on board with exercise as an antidepressant, you can get started today on improving your mood. You don’t have to go from zero to 60 in 2 seconds though. Start with a moderate exercise program that is doable, and increase the intensity over time. You should see some positive results immediately, and a long-term benefit after 10-12 weeks.


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