This Type of Exercise May Reduce Depression

Engaging in low to moderate-intensity exercise, rather than vigorous activity, may reduce depression and anxiety, a study finds.

Mental disorders are the leading cause of depression, anxiety, dementia, and alcohol abuse globally, accounting for 20% of lost healthy days, the World Health Organization estimates. Despite wide prevalence, only 10% of people who need attention or treatment for mental health problems receive it.

Increasing evidence shows that physical activity can not only alleviate symptoms and improve cognitive function but also play a role in preventing mental health issues.

A new review of evidence published in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews associates physical activity with a 23% lower risk of depression and a 26% reduced risk of anxiety.

Low and moderate-intensity exercise, such as gardening, golf, and walking, appear to have the most significant protective effects against depression. No strong association between high-intensity physical activity and alleviated depression was observed.

Physical activity was also linked to a lower risk of severe mental health conditions, including a reduction in psychosis and schizophrenia by 27%, although the evidence regarding the association is less clear.

"These effects of physical activity intensity on depression highlight the need for precise exercise guidelines. Moderate exercise can improve mental health through biochemical reactions, whereas high-intensity exercise may worsen stress-related responses in some individuals," lead author Lee Smith, Professor of Public Health at Anglia Ruskin University.

Researchers say people can achieve low to moderate levels of physical activity by making smaller lifestyle changes without needing to commit to a high-intensity exercise program.

Moreover, it is important to consider the individual's preferences and capabilities when recommending physical activity to ensure that it is enjoyable and sustainable.

How much exercise do I need?

For substantial health benefits, adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity every week, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

Ideally, the activity should be spread throughout the week. However, achieving most of the recommended physical activity in one to two days — known as "the weekend warrior" pattern — may have similar health benefits.

A large 2023 study suggests that different modes of physical activity stimulate different physiological and psychosocial effects. For instance, resistance exercise has the largest effects on depression, while yoga and other mind-body exercises are most effective for reducing anxiety.

The study found that longer-duration interventions were less effective than shorter interventions, possibly due to a decline in adherence over the long term. Another explanation is that the longer interventions might not provide sufficient progression of physical activity dose, leading to a reduction in their effectiveness.

Physical activity may help to ease depression and anxiety by releasing endorphins, the natural brain chemicals that promote pleasure and alleviate pain. Moreover, exercising can take the mind off worries, helping break the anxiety cycle.

Exercising with mental health conditions

Depression can cause physical symptoms like fatigue, poor sleep, and chronic pain, making it harder to start or stick to exercising.

A 2023 trial compared the effectiveness of common antidepressants to supervised running sessions. Although a similar share of participants in both groups achieved remission, only 52% of runners adhered to the protocol, compared to 82% of those on antidepressants.

If you decide to give exercise a chance, start small — you don't need to run a marathon in the first month or ever. Work out at the time of day when you have the most energy and focus on activities you enjoy.

Choose comfortable clothes and settings, find an exercise buddy, and, most importantly, reward yourself to keep your motivation high.

Exercising may be a powerful treatment for depression and other mental health issues. However, it should not replace the medications prescribed by your healthcare provider.


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