This is my depressed stance. When you’re depressed, it makes a lot of difference how you stand. The worst thing you can do is straighten up and hold your head high because then you’ll start to feel better. If you’re going to get any joy out of being depressed, you’ve got to stand like this.—Charlie Brown
While Charlie Brown made many people chuckle with his humorous take on how to stay depressed, he — or, actually, his creator, Charles Schulz, who dealt with depression his whole life — was onto something: Your physical state and mental state are deeply connected. The more (and more vigorously) you move, the less likely you are to get depressed, and the more likely you are to overcome depression if you are experiencing it.
The Case for Staying Active
In a recent review of more than 30 studies on the subject of exercise and depression, researchers from Wayne State University in Detroit concluded that a combination of antidepressants, psychotherapy and lifestyle changes — with a focus on exercise — is the key to managing depression. Among the findings from the studies they reviewed:
- In a national study, 60 percent of adults who exercised regularly experienced fewer instances of depression and anxiety, compared with more sedentary adults.
- Exercise may offer comparable benefits to those of cognitive behavioral or group therapy.
- Exercise-only and exercise-plus-medication regimens offer similar reductions in depressive symptoms to medication-only courses of treatment.
- Exercise helps prevent recurrence of depressive symptoms.
“Exercise is the best type of antidepressant around,” says George Tesar, MD, a psychiatrist and the chair of the Psychiatry and Psychology Department at the Cleveland Clinic. Physical activity affects levels of brain chemicals that affect our mood — releasing the ones that make us feel better, like endorphins, serotonin and dopamine — and helps to distract us from stress and induce a relaxed state.
A Half Hour for Mental Health
The majority of the studies reviewed by the Wayne State researchers indicated that a regular program of aerobic activity offers the greatest benefits. That translates into 30 minutes of exertion at a moderate to vigorous pace — which for most of us means brisk walking, light jogging, biking or using an elliptical machine. An added benefit of working in working out as part of your treatment: Regular exercise aids in preventing and managing (and even reversing) diabetes and heart disease, which frequently go hand in hand with depression.
Lift Weights to Lift Your Mood
As important as aerobic activity is in improving mental health, additional research indicates that for older adults facing depression, high-intensity resistance training significantly reduces symptoms of depression and increases quality of life, vitality, social functioning and emotional well-being. Researchers in Australia have found that 10 weeks of weight training brought these benefits to those 60 and up. The regimen the researchers had their subjects follow — 30 to 45 minutes of working specific muscle groups, three times a week — can be mimicked through lifting weights, doing sit-ups or push-ups, or engaging in heavy gardening.
Take the First Step
Because depression affects your overall wellness — from your thought patterns and mental outlook to your physical health and relationship with food — it’s important to begin taking simple steps to improve your condition. In short, focus on what you can do — walking around the block — rather than what you can’t (yet) do.
Dr. Michael McKee, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, emphasizes that the meditative aspects of exercise can have enormous psychological benefits too. “A long walk lets you think things through and focus on the scenery in a way that distracts you. Sometimes some of the mental debris settles out onto the ground and isn’t there to bother you anymore.”
For those who are dealing with more serious depression, Dr. McKee recommends that you “start by getting out of bed and putting one foot on the floor.” The next week, he advises, “do the same and add the other foot.” Small steps like this can help you to begin to rebuild your self-respect and sense of confidence. And achievement just feels good. When you find something that makes you feel confident and better, “do more of it!” Dr. McKee says.