Does exercise really help with depression and anxiety?

Yes, exercise really helps with depression and anxiety and the connection between mental health and exercise has been widely proven. There is overwhelming evidence linking exercise to substantial changes in our mood, accompanied by a range of neurochemical effects in our brains. Interventions involving exercise have become increasingly used in clinical practice, with recent research showing that it can significantly improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

This blog will cover the science linking exercise to an improvement in symptoms of depression and anxiety, its connection to self-esteem and sleep and how you can get motivated to start exercising even if you are in struggling with depression or anxiety.

How exercise helps with depression

It may seem counterintuitive to recommend exercise to someone who is struggling with low energy, but the key here is to break the negative cycle of depression. 

Though some patients might find it obvious or condescending when professionals recommend exercise as treatment (the phrase “have you tried going for a walk” comes to mind), behavioural activation is actually an effective tool for handling depression. The challenge here is how you can break the negative cycle and get started.

A recent review reported that exercise can lead to reduced risk for the development of depressive disorders, as well as a reduction in symptoms for people with depression. This finding suggests that by engaging in more consistent exercise, we can both prevent and treat symptoms of depression. A core symptom of depression is a disruption in energy levels

By cancelling plans with friends or family, because we feel low, we may reinforce feelings of isolation or miss out on interactions that would have brought us joy. 

As such, when we are feeling depressed we may struggle to engage in daily activities or even leave the house at all. This can create a vicious cycle, in which the person may be less active because of their low mood, which promotes an even further reduction in mood. This cycle can maintain feelings associated with depression by depriving us of opportunities to experience potentially rewarding situations. 

Exercise has also been found to reduce levels of cortisol in those with major depression, a glucocorticoid commonly referred to as the body’s main stress hormone. Through this, exercise can reduce feelings of stress in the body, promoting an improvement in mood as well as potentially lowering feelings of anxiety. Using exercise as a form of behavioural activation can allow us to break the negative cycle that can maintain feelings of depression, as well as reduce our feelings of stress. 

How exercise helps with anxiety

Exercise can often help us think clearer, allowing us to break cycles of negative thoughts about our worries. When we are worried, we may feel trapped in our heads, focusing all our attention on our thoughts. Through exercising, we can instead shift our focus to our body as a whole, moving away from cycles of negative thinking and lowering our levels of perceived anxiety.

All of us experience anxiety to some extent, but when our levels of anxiety are consistently high over a long period of time this can cause serious problems for our mental and physical health. Anxiety disorders may involve excessive worry, fatigue, and feeling restless. This can leave us feeling drained and get in the way of attending to things that are important to us as we focus so much on our worries. 

Similarly to depression, preliminary evidence suggests that exercise may act as a protective factor in reducing risk for anxiety disorders, as well as an effective method of reducing symptoms of anxiety

This research indicates that by exercising consistently we can successfully reduce anxiety, with exercise providing an effective outlet for our anxious feelings, and promoting positive changes in our thinking. This effect is consistent over time, meaning that by incorporating exercise into our weekly routine we can continuously moderate our levels of anxiety. 

We can also see this change in the short term, for example, you may have heard the phrase “going on a run to clear my head”. 

Raise your self-esteem to improve mental health

To improve and protect our mental health we should attempt to raise our self-esteem. One method that we can use to accomplish this is by using physical activity, with increased levels of exercise found to increase self-esteem scores

Additionally, by improving our self-esteem we may feel more able to maintain important relationships and be less preoccupied with our perceived flaws, further improving our mental health. Therefore, through exercising consistently, we can boost our self-esteem, allowing us to indirectly reduce our levels of depression and anxiety.

Low self-esteem is common in both depression and anxiety, with self-esteem referring to what we think about ourselves. This may be high, in which we hold a positive self-image, or low, in which we hold a negative self-image. When we have high self-esteem, we may feel confident in ourselves and our ability to handle problems in our lives. However, when we have low self-esteem we perceive ourselves negatively, often exaggerating our “flaws” and diminishing our abilities. 

This can have a massive impact on our overall mental health, leading to low mood or excessive worrying as we begin to view everything through the lens of our negative thoughts about ourselves. As such, low self-esteem has been identified as a potential risk factor for the development of both anxiety and depression

Trouble sleeping is a common symptom of both anxiety and depression

As you may have guessed, one way of improving our sleep is through consistent exercise! Although there is debate over the exact mechanisms involved in this process, research has consistently found that exercise can improve sleep quality

You may have already noticed this link, for example feeling exhausted after a busy day and falling asleep the second your head hits the pillow. Our bodies are designed to move, and living a sedentary life will affect all areas of your physical and mental well-being including your sleep quality. Therefore, through regular exercise we can improve the quality of our sleep, which may also reduce symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

Both anxiety and depression can involve a disruption to sleep, often leaving us ruminating over things we are upset or worried about while trying to fall asleep. For example, we may mentally prepare for the next day by running through all the hypothetical situations that could go wrong or thinking about all the things we are dissatisfied with in our lives. This may maintain symptoms of anxiety and depression by leaving us with less energy and lower mental performance during the day. 

In fact, the quality of our sleep has been proposed to predict mental health even in people who do not show symptoms of mental illness. This research suggests that our sleep is an extremely important factor in our mental health, and maintaining poor quality sleep is detrimental to our well-being. Because of this, in order to improve our mental health we may look for methods to improve the quality of our sleep. 

Getting started

Of course, this is much easier said than done! The idea of starting to exercise can be daunting for many people, so here are some tips to get you started. 

Firstly, take your time, it may be counter-productive to commit to an intense training program or sign up for your first 5k immediately after deciding to exercise more. Pushing yourself too quickly might result in burnout and leave you feeling like you want to quit before you’ve even begun. Instead, try starting slowly, making small changes and practising self-compassion when things don’t go exactly how you imagined the first time. The exercise you feel able to do will vary from day to day, with shifts in your mood, thoughts, energy, sleep, and nutrition changing constantly. Remember that any exercise is better than none, even if it’s only a short walk. 

Secondly, try exercising with someone else, this could be a personal trainer, a friend, or a class at the gym. Exercising with others can make it feel less intimidating, as well as give you the motivation to attend future sessions. If you are new to exercising, consulting with a personal trainer may be especially useful, as they will be able to answer any questions you may have about training, as well as provide closer support during sessions. 

Lastly, try something you enjoy! If strength training isn’t your thing, try running (or walking), yoga, swimming, or anything else that gets you moving. If you are finding yourself getting bored of the exercise you’re doing, try switching up your routine or trying something new. The best form of exercise for you is one that you can stick to and enjoy.

Exercise can be a cheap and fun treat for you

Regular exercise can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as protect against the development of several mental health disorders. Additionally, consistent exercise can help improve sleep quality, self-esteem, and general physical health, which can further affect levels of anxiety and depression indirectly. To begin with, start slowly, train with someone else where possible, and try something you enjoy. 

Exercising can be a cheap, fun, and effective method of reducing levels of anxiety and depression, which can be implemented into our daily lives with any level of experience. 

Despite the amazing benefits of exercise on our mental health, it is not a substitute for therapy. If you are experiencing depression or anxiety, it may be useful to consult a professional in order to explore the roots of your problems. By approaching mental health treatment in a holistic way, we can create a foundation for massive change, improving the quality of our lives through a range of mechanisms. This is what we do here at RESET, our therapy programme encompasses all the key areas of our lives for long-term results.

And if you are struggling to get motivated to exercise and would like more tips, have a look at this article

Jake Whitehouse-Muir is an Assistant Psychologist and Research Lead at The RESET Health Group.

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