Context Is Important When Using Physical Activity to Alleviate Depression

People who suffer from depression will be familiar with the oft repeated advice to get out and exercise. Exercise has for a long time been known to alleviate the severity of depression; it helps improve the mood of those with mild to moderate depression and can lift those with severe depression out of a deep funk. The trick is to actually get out exercise.

A new study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley National Health Service Foundation Trust, the Norwegian Research Council, and by a grant from the Institute of Social Psychiatry has shown that it’s not a simple matter of getting physical exercise; context is important.

To be effective, physical activity has to form part of one’s leisure time and should be carried out in a social context. People with physically demanding jobs, for instance construction and landscaping, are no less likely to suffer from depression than those who sit behind a desk all day.

According to the study, which involved 40 400 Norwegian residents. It doesn’t matter how mild or intense the physical activity. The single most important factor is that it is separate from work. Furthermore, those who are not active in their leisure time are almost twice as likely to suffer symptoms of depression as those who engage in some form of exercise.

One of the reasons the distinction between work and leisure activity is so important is increased social interaction.

Dr Samuel Harvey, the study leader, said, “It was also interesting that less than vigorous but still regular physical activity of some nature turned out to be effective for decreasing depressive symptoms. So something is better than nothing, although more vigorous is still better than less vigorous for this association.”

He added that it was no surprise that workplace activity had no effect on depression. “Unless somebody is dedicated to that kind of employment. Of being clearly physically active throughout their work day… the effect is going to be small.”

In what way does exercise alleviate depression?

In the leisure context, social support and social engagement are thought to be responsible for improved mood.

Chemically, exercise stimulates the release of endorphins and serotonins, which are natural mood elevators. It reduces the production of immune system chemicals which can worsen depression. It increases body temperature, which has a physically calming effect on the body. And it burns up stress inducing chemicals such as adrenalin.

Mentally, exercise improves self-esteem and self-confidence as sufferers become proactive about their condition (and tone up their bodies). And it serves as a distraction, when you’re cycling up a hill or maintaining a yoga posture you are fully in that moment and aren’t focused on your inner pain.

To effectively combat depression. It’s recommended that you engage in physical activity three to five times per week for 30 minute sessions.

To ensure that exercise is not viewed as a chore but as something to look forward to. Think carefully about what it is that you enjoy doing. Even gardening counts are physical activity. And while it is a solitary activity you could join a gardening club to enjoy some social benefits. If you know that you are going to battle to stay motivated. Regardless of how much you enjoy your activities, rope in a friend or family member to keep you company.

It’s important not to have unreasonable expectations. Exercise will not cure you of your depression, nor is it a substitute for medical or psychotherapy. It is merely a tool to help you cope with your negative feelings and lift you up when you need it most.