If you or a loved one is struggling with depression, you’ve probably heard that exercise helps. The good news is, it does. However, before you shove yourself or a family member off to the gym or go off running, it’s also important to keep in mind that exercise can also be a bad thing. In this article, we’ll discuss why exercise helps depression and then look at why you should also be careful, manage your energy levels, and manage your physical health around it.

Why Does Exercise Ease Depression?

Most people know that exercise is supposed to help with depression. But how does that work? And does it really help? The truth is, yes it does. Exercise boosts the mood (temporarily) by increasing levels of neurotransmitters and endorphins in the body, by triggering the reward circuit, and by increasing blood flow and oxygen in the body.

This achieves a few things:

  • Increased oxygen in the blood means you get an energy boost, usually lasting about 2 hours after exercise
  • Increased serotonin and dopamine (reward circuit) can make you feel happy or satisfied
  • Increased neurotransmitters in the brain mean you’re more likely to feel better, even temporarily.

Over time, these effects can help you to feel, on average, better, which will reduce negative spirals and feeling worse because you feel worse. So, over time, regular exercise can have significant impact on how you feel.

In addition, there are a few overlapping features of exercise that can help with feeling better. For example, many exercises are outdoors – being outdoors directly reduces stress and improves the mood. In addition, many types of exercise are social, which boosts the mood and lowers stress.

So, the ideal exercise to ease depression is a group activity outside in a park or woods, such as group hiking, dance lessons, yoga, or a group trail ride.

Risks of Exercise

It’s important to keep in mind that not all exercise is good exercise. You should never leave exercise feeling exhausted and depleted or drained, you should never spend all of your energy on exercise, and you should never allow exercise to become one more thing to beat yourself up about because you’re failing to do it.

  • Exercise can result in physical harm. Activities like weights, running, boxing, etc., are high stress to the joints and muscles. Exercise caution and be careful.
  • Tiring yourself out may mean you don’t have energy to do other, more important self-care items. Manage your energy levels and choose a level of exercise you can keep up without dropping your other responsibilities. Walking is a great exercise.
  • Going places and expecting to be good, included in social groups, or to see immediate results can be disappointing and it may cause you to crash. Similarly, setting goals to go every day and not doing it can result in feelings of disappointment in yourself. Manage your expectations and set reasonable goals for attendance and performance.

Essentially, if done wrong, exercise can do more harm than good. So, it’s important to approach your exercise with caution and to mentally see it as a form of treatment.

a beautiful woman floating in the swimming pool

7 Great Exercises to Ease Depression

Any exercise will help you to ease depression. However, the following list are mostly low-impact, social, and fun to do no matter your existing condition.

1.      Swimming

Swimming is one of the best exercises you can do because it puts stress on most of your muscle groups, without straining the joints. In addition, you can easily do it in groups to go to swimming lessons, swimming sports, or aerobics in the water. However, it can be expensive, and you may not have a nearby swimming pool.

2.      Cycling

Cycling is a low-impact exercise that you can do indoors on a stationary bike or outside on a real one. It doesn’t matter how fast you go, the point is that you’re moving. That means you can make cycling about enjoying the scenery, listening to podcasts, or biking with friends. Like swimming, getting started with cycling may be expensive (you need a bike and, in some states, a helmet), but it can be very rewarding.

3.      Yoga

Yoga is difficult for many people to start because no one starts with the kind of flexibility and muscle strength to do poses well. However, if you approach yoga from the basis of getting to move, it can be a rewarding and destressing experience, in which you can get to know your body better can build strength and can practice a form of mindfulness.

4.      Hiking

Hiking gets you outdoors, often with a group of friends or likeminded people, and gives you opportunity to explore your local environment. Unfortunately, hiking isn’t something you can do most days – simply because it takes several hours of your day and you may have to travel to do it. However, this is a great way to supplement walking with more strenuous exercise on weekends or a few days a week.

5.      Weightlifting

Weightlifting helps you to build strength, focus, concentration, and overall ability. However, many people find weightlifting to be boring. On the other hand, you can do this in a gym or at home – with even a light set of weights. It doesn’t matter how much you lift so long as you move and do something. And, building muscle improves long-term mental health, simply because the increased muscle mass contributes to increased oxygen and blood flow in the body – meaning you overall have more energy.

6.      Dancing

Dancing is a great way to commit to exercise if you like people and like to move but have trouble getting yourself up to do it. Here, you’ll normally have to sign on with a class, which means getting started with a group of peers, having dancing partners, and having to show up to dance x number of times a week. That can be a great motivator, and many people have a lot of fun with it. However, it won’t be cheap – so you will have to invest for this one.

7.      Walking

Walking is the most accessible and one of the healthiest exercise options you can choose. Not only is walking completely free and easy to do at any time, it’s also low impact and very unlikely to cause injury or to over tire you. This makes it accessible, no matter where or how you live. Here, you should aim to start small walks and build them up over time. For example, start your mornings with a 20-minute walk and aim to walk an hour every morning after a year. That kind of scaling up ensures you don’t overstress yourself and allows you to look forward to your morning walk instead of dreading it.

Exercise can help you to balance and regulate your emotions. However, it isn’t a replacement for mental health treatment like therapy. If you or a loved one is struggling with depression, exercise can help. But, it’s a complementary therapy intended to add to depression treatment not to replace it.

Compassion Recovery Centers offers mental health and substance abuse treatment at our safe and modern locations in Orange County, California. Contact us today to speak with one of our experienced treatment team members.