When you're down in the dumps, you may not feel like exercising, but maybe you should. Studies show that even short bouts of exercise can boost your mood as effectively as medications, relieving anxiety and depression, and building resilience to stress in the future.
Changes in your brain are associated with depression and severe stress. Low levels of certain chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin result in loss of brain nerve cells, contributing to feelings of sadness or emptiness, loss of interest in normal activities and ability to focus.
Antidepressants can raise the levels of brain chemicals to normalize them, but so does exercise. As you work your heart and muscles, you release norepinephrine and serotonin into your blood stream and increase the levels in your brain. By increasing circulation throughout the body, you also increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, making it perform better.
Working out can also reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The link between chronic stress and the potential for mood disorders is well-established.
Long term stress can actually contribute to shrinking volume in the brain, while depression is associated with loss of brain nerve cells and reduced blood circulation in the brain.
Exercise triggers a number of chemical chain reactions that help reverse some of the biological effects of depression. It can help:
- Stimulate new nerve cell growth
- Improve the network of fibers to strengthen communication between nerve cells, enhancing brain function
- Increase blood flow to fuel brain activity
- Activate the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning and memory
- Break down kynurenine, a substance that accumulates in the muscles as a result of stress
How much exercise do you need to beat the blues? Most studies on exercise and depression have involved structured programs of cardio and strength training. The combination of the two may be better than just cardio training.
If you are just getting started, aim for accumulating 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio activity for five days of the week and strength training sessions twice a week. Remember, you can get your cardio in doses of 10 or 15 minute sessions throughout the day.
For more on building resilience, please check out previous posts: