How exercise can improve depression

I don’t think I could rightfully call this blog “Brawn for Brains” without a post discussing the mental benefits of fitness and I’m feeling particularly motivated to write this article at the moment. For the sake of this argument I’m going to take the Tabula-rasa assumption, I’m going to assume those reading this know nothing. I’m not doing this to treat anyone like an idiot, I just want to keep in mind that I shouldn’t treat any of this knowledge as common.
Exercise and Depression

People that exercise regularly are much less likely to experience severe bouts of anxiety and depression. Research indicates that regular aerobic conditioning leads to a lessened severity of symptoms of major depression and a reduced risk of relapse and that regular resistance training leads to better moods and reduced feelings of confusion, anger and tension [2]. My own experience supports this general claim; before I began a regular workout regimen I was prone to depressive episodes that would typically last weeks, some lasting months. Overall I felt like I had very little control of my own mood, I was merely reacting to everything around me and never felt caught up enough to act of my own accord. This period spanned a time of my life that I was not exercising very much and I have not relapsed into depression since maintaining a regular exercise regimen so it is easy to see there is a strong correlation between the two variables.

There’s many explanations involving neurotransmitters and hormones that thoroughly explain this result, however the most satisfactory explanation I’ve ever heard was from a friend in response to my going on about the subject:

 “When you’re depressed you’re more likely to stay up at night and make it worse, you ever try to stay up all night after lifting some heavy ass weights? You’re going to get a good night sleep whether you want to or not and that can be just enough to break the cycle”

This is certainly a gross oversimplification but I think it helps to drive the point home that regular exercise can begin to help repair a system of bad habits that may result in depression. That in and of itself is a huge force behind exercises’ actions on depression: planning time to exercise reinforces ones ability to make positive changes, specifically ones that don’t grant immediate gratification. Yes there is a lot happening chemically in the brain because of exercise, and I will not discount that, but I am going to focus on the feeling of control it can give back to the individual.
Strengthening Self -Confidence through forming positive habits

There’s a supposed indicator of children’s probability to be successful in life: The cookie test. The cookie test is when you hand your child a cookie and tell them that if they don’t eat it in x amount of minutes they will get a second treat. The cookie test tests a child’s ability to delay immediate gratification or will power, it also gives a useful set of metrics to measure improvement/regression (time until they cave, will they hold out for a third treat?) I don’t think this test only applies to children or that our results from this test are immune to change. Adults can find ways to test their own ability to resist immediate gratification and then find ways to improve it. The ability to fight the temptation of immediate gratification is a great marker of self-confidence and will power, both of which are inversely proportional to the frequency/intensity of depression experienced by an individual.

We can train ourselves to have positive habits that same way we train our bodies and the results may not be enlarged muscles but a larger sense of worth and a shrunken feeling of depression are certainly two results worthwhile to pursue. We do this in a way analogous to beginning weight training:

– Start slow and small (make small changes)

– Build momentum (continue those changes over time)

– Progressively overload (pursue new skills/changes and incorporate them into your daily life)

– Apply it (make daily habits to achieve long term goals)

All of this may sound overly “self-help”-esque but my goal here is to show that regular exercise affects the mind and the body as one. The same process by which we achieve our fitness goals can be translated across our lives towards whatever we wish to achieve. Like Arnold said:

“The secret is contained in a three-part formula I learned in the gym: self confidence, a positive mental attitude, and honest hard work.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

1. Penelope, F. Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity

2. Ross C, Hayes D. Exercise and psychological well-being in the community. Am J Epidemiol 1988; 127:762–771. [Context Link]

3. Moses, J. The effects of exercise training on mental well-being in the normal population: A controlled trial. Journal of psychosomatic research. 1989.