The Uplifting Link Between Depression and Exercise

Healthy body, healthy mind? That’s what researchers are finally trying to prove once and for all—and they may well be close, according to a slew of new studies.

If you’ve ever had a bad day and decided to exercise as a stress-reliever, you might already feel that link between mental health and physical well-being. However, researchers in a recent review of available data published in the journal Preventative Medicine wanted to test this in the most scientific way possible.

The scientists only took into account studies where exercise was measured objectively, not by human reports relying on the memory to recall workout regimens, as well as only research where participants’ mental health was evaluated by a standard test. This, hopefully, would ensure more accuracy in determining how much exercise impacts issues like depression and anxiety.

With more than one million people fitting the criteria, researchers split the group into thirds based on how physically active they were. They discovered those with the lowest exercise totals were also 75 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with depression compared to the top exercisers. The men and women who were more moderately active were also 25 percent more likely to have depression than those in the fittest squad.

Another meta-analysis looked at studies of men and women diagnosed with depression, who then started a specific exercise regime. Each reviewed piece of research had to include a control group, who was not given a physical activity routine to begin. The results showed “a large and significant effect” in treating depression with exercise like jogging or power walking.

Ken Yeager, PhD, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program, says that a quick search of the Ohio State University Library Database indicates “around 800 articles in 2016 addressing the topic of exercise and mood” across tons of different well-being variables. “What all of the studies have in common is that exercise and mood are very closely tied together,” he says. “That movement stimulates body health down to a cellular level.”

Yeager says you can tell by the varied areas of study, this exercise-mood awareness is now leading researchers in a variety of areas “to develop understandings of the connections, and how people can improve their health and their mood regardless of health or illness levels” by exercising.  “Circulation and the movement of oxygen throughout the body seems to be the key factor,” he explains. “But the idea of physics, we were all taught ‘a body at rest remains at rest, a body in motion remains in motion.’ This concept leads us to understand the impact of movement, even simple movement.”

One study, published in Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews in 2016, is a recent example: Exercise, the researchers found, reduced inflammation markers while increasing hormones and biochemical levels that contribute to better overall mental health. When you move your body, your body’s internal elements move, too — although more research needs to be done yet to persuasively determine the mechanisms that link exercise to positive changes in the body.

Yeager explains that any sort of movement stimulates functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain and throughout the central nervous system. “The brain-body connection then carries into boosting awareness of ability to function at even higher levels,” he explains. “When one moves, stretches or exercises more, they sleep better, for instance. It has long been known that good sleep hygiene improves mood.”

Perhaps the best part of the exercise-mood link is that even a little extra exercise can improve your mental well-being. “Even as little as 10 minutes, three times per day of stretching can improve mood,” Yeager says. “Taking a 30 minute walk can lower your stress level. This is especially true in gray states during the winter, when seasonal affective disorder can impact those susceptible to mood disruption during the winter months.”

If you can get outside on your lunch hour and walk just 20 minutes, you will be doing your mental and physical health a huge favor by the time you hit your desk again for an afternoon of work, says Yeager. “Even if there is no sun, you will also still be exposed to UV light, which can help in mood regulation,” he says.

Everyone can exercise to reduce the effects of issues like depression, anxiety, or a basic bummer mood. Yeager suggests building stretches into your day, taking a five, 10, 15 or 20-minute walk everyday; any form of aerobic exercise, like swimming in the summer or playing in the snow in the winter, both of which kids will enjoy. “If you can build some form of exercise into your day at least three days per week, as you begin to experience consistency and progress in exercising, your mood will lift,” he says. “Then, you will have even more energy to dedicate to your workout.”

The results will build and build, so start today—even if you just start small with a few steps.

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