Since so many Beyond Blue readers expressed the importance of exercise in their war against depression on the message board of my “Depression and Coupes” post, I thought I’d share exercise tips by Karen Swartz, M.D., one of the doctors at Johns Hopkins who evaluated me a year and a half ago. She is Director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, where I get much of my research.
After decades of investigation, there is now indisputable evidence that regular physical exercise can relieve and perhaps even prevent stress, anxiety, and depression — especially for women, who tend to suffer from these problems more often than men. Research also shows that exercise can treat depression and prevent relapses in some older individuals as effectively as antidepressant drugs. Exercise may even reverse some of the mental decline that can occur with aging, probably because it improves blood flow to the brain.
A 2006 study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin found that, for people with major depressive disorder, a half hour of brisk walking on a treadmill is more effective in producing feelings of well-being and boosting energy than resting. Study participants also reported less tension, depression, anger, and fatigue after walking. What’s more, the effects of exercise were immediate: As soon as the subjects stepped off the treadmill, they were in a better mood, and they felt good for up to one hour later.
Here is our best prescription for boosting your mood with exercise:
Tip 1: Exercise now…and again.
Research shows that a 10- minute walk can improve your mood for two hours. Another study demonstrates that 10 minutes of pedaling on a stationery bike is enough to make you feel better, at least temporarily. The key to sustaining mood benefits is to exercise regularly — stop exercising, and the psychological lift will disappear. The converse is also true: If you’re used to regular physical activity, your mood will suffer if you take an exercise vacation.
Tip 2: Choose activities that are moderately intense.
Aerobic exercise, such as walking and swimming, undoubtedly has mental health benefits, but you don’t need to sweat strenuously to see results.
Tip 3: Find exercises that are continuous and rhythmic (rather than intermittent).
Walking, swimming, dancing, stationery biking, and yoga are good choices.
Tip 4: Be wary of competitive sports.
Exercise that pits people head-to-head with opponents may be too stressful, leading to a bad mood in the face of defeat. If you’re the type whose competitive spirit may get the better of you, choose a physical activity that you enjoy and that allows you to de-stress.
Tip 5: Add a mind-body element.
Activities such as yoga and tai chi rest your mind and pump up your energy. But if you don’t want to do yoga or the like, you can add a meditative element to walking or swimming by repeating a mantra (a word or phrase) as you move.
Tip 6: Start slowly, and don’t overdo it.
More isn’t better. Athletes who overtrain find their moods drop rather than lift. You also risk injury and boredom if you push too hard, too fast, or too far.