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Exercise isn’t a cure-all for depression because there’s no such thing. However, plenty of research indicates that exercise can reduce or prevent depression symptoms. Among people with depression and comparable health conditions, exercise seems to have substantial mental health benefits. For example, a meta-analysis and systematic review from 2021 found that exercise can significantly improve quality of life and depressive symptoms when used as an add-on to usual treatment, and the more exercise, the better, researchers noted.

A large study in The American Journal of Psychiatry concluded that participating in activity of any amount for at least one hour a week could stop 12 percent of future depression cases. What makes an exercise routine an excellent addition to your depression treatment plan? There are likely several factors. Biologically, exercise can increase specific elements in the brain that can help create new brain cells and brain cell connections. Additionally, other physical changes that happen with exercise, like cardiovascular fitness and improved metabolic health, encourage brain health indirectly.

Psychologically, exercise is an excellent way to increase self-efficacy and self-esteem, as there are small goals, like running or walking a certain distance or for a specific amount of time, that you can work toward achieving, and socially, exercise, mainly when done with a partner, friend,  or in a class setting, can fortify your relationships with others. If you need help becoming more active or want to try new activities, here are some exercises that can help reduce depression symptoms.

Go for a run.

The most tangible example of exercise fueling certain brain chemicals is the runner’s high, which most athletes report experiencing once crossing a certain exertion threshold. That sense of euphoria is said to be due to releasing endorphins in the brain in response to nonstop physical activity. Endorphins reduce your pain perception and trigger a positive feeling in the body. Exercise also has several physical benefits that can make you feel better by improving sleep quality, decreasing muscle tension, and reducing anxiety.

So, which exercises fight depression best? The most substantial evidence supports aerobic exercise, which includes swimming, running, hiking, walking, dancing, kickboxing, and aerobics classes. The Mayo Clinic asserts that engaging in at least 30 minutes of exercise three to five days a week could lessen depressive symptoms. If you’re crunched for time, even a 10 to 15-minute exercise spurt could make a difference.

Lift some weights.

According to an investigation of 21 studies published in 2020, strength-training exercises also help alleviate depression symptoms. Similarly, another study review revealed that people who exercise using weights are less likely to develop depression than people who never exercise with weights, but how do barbells and similar equipment brighten your feelings?

For those with mild to moderate depression, weight training can be a meditative practice. While you’re weight training, your mind is focused on the task and not thinking about anything else. Also, there are other benefits, like elevated blood flow, increased muscle definition, and hard work, all of which can improve your perspective and give you a sense of satisfaction when you reach your goals. Just start safely and use a personal trainer’s help if necessary.

Try some yoga classes.

Practicing yoga is another activity that can reduce depression symptoms, primarily when used with other treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy. Eastern traditions like yoga have fantastic antidepressant effects in that they improve flexibility and balance, increase strength, and contain a meditative factor. Start with a yoga class in your area so you can ensure that you’re doing the poses and movements appropriately. Group yoga classes also offer social benefits. Not enough evidence is available to know what kind of yoga is best for treating depression.

However, a study in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine revealed that women who practiced hatha yoga, which combines breathing techniques with yoga poses, three times a week for four weeks reported decreased levels of anxiety, depression, and stress compared with those levels at the onset of the study.

Give tai chi a try.

Similar to yoga, tai chi is another Eastern tradition that can help ease depression. Specifically, this gentle, slow practice can help reduce stress and relieve depression symptoms. Practicing tai chi in a group can also play a part in relieving depression. A group setting can strengthen a sense of autonomy and connectedness with others. You can also cultivate a social support network in an exercise class that you may not develop when exercising alone.

Go for regular walks.

Putting one foot in front of the other might be the trick to feeling better. Walking is an aerobic exercise that’s fit for almost everybody. All it takes is a pair of supportive, comfortable shoes, and you’re ready to start. Practical wisdom asserts that something is better than nothing as it relates to physical activity. If depression has made you inactive, start slowly and gradually increase distance and time. If you set your expectations too high, you might self-blame and feel guilty for not meeting those expectations, so set realistic expectations, like going on a five-minute walk.

Get a healthy dose of sunshine.

If you like being outside, even simple activities like throwing a ball around with your kids, gardening, or washing your car can be good for your mood. One reason might be that sunlight has been shown to increase serotonin, a mood-supporting brain chemical. Changes in brain chemicals during the colder, darker months have been associated with some cases of seasonal affective disorder. Pick an outdoor activity that works for you, depending on your functioning level, preferences, and energy.

For those with depression, starting an exercise routine might not be easy. It can be challenging because depression can cause body aches, reduce energy, disrupt sleep and increase pain perception, resulting in less motivation to exercise. It may be best to start with five minutes a day of walking or any type of movement like tai chi or yoga. As you get in shape, you’ll start to look forward to those relaxing breaks in your day and enjoy it more and more.

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