Benefits of Exercise on Depression and Anxiety

By: Martha Pyron MD, Joseph Rayner IV, PT, DPT

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a widespread increase in varying mental health disorders, most commonly anxiety and depression. Of course, this should come to no surprise to anyone, as policies placed to protect the public also meant that activities that affect a person’s well-being would be interrupted, such as your typical physical activity levels, social life, work stress, financial stress, etc. However, this does not mean that nothing can be done to make an impact. For some, exercise may seem like the last thing you would want to do when dealing with depression or anxiety. However, if you can give yourself that little push needed to get started, exercise can set you on the path to overcoming these mental health conditions. For mental health awareness month, Medicine in Motion would like to share with you our thoughts on the benefits of exercise on depression and anxiety.

So, how does exercise help with depression and anxiety?

  • Release endorphins: What we currently understand is that exercise can release endorphins, which are chemicals that may enhance your sense of well-being
  • Distract yourself: Exercise gives you a chance to distract yourself from the worries that you may have in your life. Rather than staying in the cycle of negative thoughts that could potentially feed into the anxiety and depression you endure, you can instead focus on accomplishing the task of exercise.
  • Gain confidence: Achieving your own S.M.A.R.T. goals is a great way to increase your self-confidence. We will discuss how to create S.M.A.R.T. goals in a bit.
  • Increase social interaction: Exercise is a great way to meet or socialize with others (in a COVID-friendly way)
  • Coping: Exercising at a healthy level is considered doing something positive for yourself, as opposed to using other coping methods such as drugs/alcohol, over-exercising, over-consumption of food, etc.

This all sounds great! Now, how do I get started?

First things first, do not dive in without first figuring out for yourself why you want to get started. This is important, as it will likely determine how sustainable exercise will be for you. Here is how to get started:

  • Identify your purpose: Exercising to help cope with anxiety/depression is a great idea, but what else could it be used for? Determining your why is the foundation for any given endeavor, and most plans will fail without a strong foundation to support it. Taking the time to write down these reasons and discussing with someone you trust can be helpful when determining your why.
  • Set S.M.A.R.T goals: Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time based. This could be used as a guide for determining objectives. An example of this is someone wanting to build strength saying, “I will develop a habit of completing 30-minute strength training sessions two times a week for 8 weeks.”
  • Figure out what you enjoy doing: A crucial component of sustainability is finding enjoyment in the activities you engage in. To successfully achieve your goals, figure out what activities you are more likely to do and stick with.
  • Think of potential barriers: If you are not already physically active, you may find it easier to come up with reasons not to engage in exercise than to participate. It is important to reflect on these barriers and come up with a solution. For example, if you are self-conscious of your appearance, you may find it easier to exercise at home.
  • Understand exercise guidelines: there is such a thing as too little and too much exercise, so understanding exercise guidelines is incredibly important to stay healthy, while chasing your goals. To keep it simple, the standard adult should be exercising roughly 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week at a moderate level of intensity. However, it is important to know that something is better than nothing. If you are only able to fit in 10 minutes of exercise in a day, that is still beneficial to your anxiety/depression symptoms than just giving up on exercising that day; stick with the process.
  • Seek professional help: There is a small percentage of those who have medical conditions that contradict them from engaging in structured exercise, However, it is important to check for comorbidities, cardiovascular conditions, etc. to ensure an individual understands how to use structured exercise to their advantage. Lastly, if you engage in regular physical activity/exercise and your anxiety/depression symptoms still interfere with your quality of life, you should see your doctor or mental health professional.

References:

Cooney G, Dwan K, Mead G. Exercise for Depression. JAMA. 2014;311(23):2432–2433. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.4930

Hu S, Tucker L, Wu C and Yang L (2020) Beneficial Effects of Exercise on Depression and Anxiety During the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Narrative Review. Front. Psychiatry 11:587557. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.587557