Q: I've read a lot in the past few years about exercise as a valid treatment for mild to moderate depression. How much exercise should I get to help me manage depression? How does exercise help with depression in the brain?
It is true that exercise has mood-lifting effects, and in several clinical trials these effects have been comparable to those of antidepressant medications. Most of the studies have evaluated relatively light programs of aerobic exercise; even brisk walking may be sufficient for some people.
Usually, these programs begin with relatively brief periods of exercise (that is, 10 or 15 minutes every other day), then increase the duration gradually over several weeks. Regular swimming sessions could serve the same purpose. The most important thing is to find a form of exercise that you like and that you can work into your schedule; the right “dose” of exercise is the one that works for a particular person!
There are several explanations for the therapeutic effects of exercise, including the so-called runner’s high, which is thought to result from endorphins (naturally occurring opiate-like substances in the brain) whose release is triggered by the activity, and a simple improvement in morale derived from initiating an active, healthy change in one’s lifestyle.
The beneficial effects of exercise should not be thought of only as an alternative to conventional forms of treatment: Although there haven’t been a lot of studies, there is every reason to believe that the addition of an aerobic exercise program can enhance the effects of a range of treatments.