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Can You Overcome Depression with Exercise?

Multiple studies show that people with chronic conditions can overcome depression with regular physical exercise–swimming, tai qi, running or hiking.
People practicing Tai chi martial art outdoors, exercise,

People with heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions are more prone to depression. This seems understandable. The problem is that if they do become depressed, their conditions may worsen. Is there a healthy, effective way to overcome depression?

People with Chronic Illness Overcome Depression with Exercise:

Canadian scientists report that people can improve their mood and overcome depression with exercise (1). To get good results, people need to engage in aerobic exercise two or three times a week. The researchers drew this conclusion from their analysis of 24 studies with more than 4,000 chronically ill participants altogether.

The exercise programs varied a great deal among these studies. Consequently, the investigators could not conclude that one type was better than another. What emerged from the data is that moving your body on a regular basis can also help you overcome depression. It may even ease some of the symptoms of certain chronic conditions.

Previous Research on Exercise to Overcome Depression:

Clinicians have long known that chronic illness such as diabetes or heart disease often goes hand-in-hand with depression. Moreover, research revealed the vicious cycle: depression makes the outcomes of such chronic conditions worse. An analysis conducted in 2012 showed that exercise can be an effective way for such individuals to overcome depression associated with chronic disease (2).

The scientists reviewed 90 randomized studies with more than 10,000 participants. They found that the most significant effects were apparent when the volunteers with relatively high levels of depression at the outset met the physical activity recommendations. In this analysis also, however, physical activity recommendations differed from one study to another.

Health care providers who treat people with chronic illness may want to consider strategies to encourage such patients to exercise to improve their psychological outlook.

SK endorsed the findings of these analyses based on personal experience:

“Hiking twice a week for 3 to 5 hours, along with daily walks of about 45 minutes, has greatly benefited my overall health. I would highly recommend it to seniors or to anyone else who can find the time in a busy work schedule.

“It seems that it is not only the exercise, but also the ‘getting away from it all’ and the ‘communing with nature’ which is, in part, responsible for the enlivening, rejuvenating, and curative effects. See the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps for your area.

“‘A walk in any season’s wood will sing your heart alive.’ — John Muir”

Well said. Other people may find dancing, running, yoga, tennis or rowing are the activities that make them feel more alive and help them overcome depression.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Béland et al, "Aerobic exercise alleviates depressive symptoms in patients with a major non-communicable chronic disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis." British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2019. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2018-099360
  • Herring et al, "Effects of exercise training on depressive symptoms among patients with a chronic illness." Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(2):101-111. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.696
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My counselor recommended exercise for me because I do have a chronic illness that has really gotten me down at times. I’m only 37 and started getting terrible symptoms at 29 yrs old. I stopped being able to work about 3 years ago and having an MBA it’s devastating to think that I spent so much time getting an education just to have to stare at it on my wall and not be able to use it the way I wanted to. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned it. This reality really gets me down sometimes.

So I decided to try therapy, and my counselor told me to get some exercise. I committed to 3x a week for 15 mins, and I ride my bike or do yard work. The condition is still present but my depression is mostly gone. And that helps somewhat. I’m glad to feel like I’m flying down a hill rather than crying in my soup with the shades drawn, and my body just can’t take any more chemicals.

Many many years ago, after discovering that I, once more, was allergic to another drug for depression, I decided that maybe drugs were not the answer for me. So, I “looked around” my life when depression was present. Was there any common factor? Could I do something about it?

The common factor, for me, was that I had allowed my immediate surroundings to get “messy” … things not put away or picked up or postponed or …. you get the picture. The “weight” of this contributed more and more to the depression. When it was enough that even I could see it, I found that acting to “clean” up my space seemed to intervene in the depression.

For me, for at least 30 years, this has worked. It’s a multi-step process, but it reduces the depression significantly AND actually cleans up my immediate space / life .

Staying as active as possible as we age is vital to a healthy attitude. Even passive-type exercising can be beneficial for those who may not be able to exercise alone. Increasing blood flow throughout the body stimulates the brain and helps joint mobility. My father has just turned 88 and has benefited physically and mentally from “working out” on toning tables at a local gym. He also uses some upper body machines (with supervision) to strengthen his arms. He doesn’t spend a long time there but tries to get there several times a week and always seems more alert and interactive afterward. Getting out and about helps him feel like he’s accomplished something productive for the day.

Every study that has undertaken to look at exercise and depression shows that exercise reduces depression – at least moderate and mild depression. But have you ever tried to get a moderately depressed person to exercise on their own? It just doesn’t happen. Results get much better if there is some kind of structure – like a research study that indicates how much exercise to do or an exercise buddy who will help you keep on track in spite of depression. For some people it might work to pay a gym for a health advisor who will meet with them on a schedule and help them remember what has been agreed as an exercise plan.

Most people are too lazy or undisciplined to exercise as a daily routine

I found that yoga “for the rest of us”/seniors, daily 5 minute Energy Medicine (Donna Eden) and walking outside when the weather was not too harsh were great ways to alleviate the winter blues (SAD) as well as for the blues in general. I’ve recently started going to my local gym 2-3 times a week. which is within walking distance. All help tremendously in alleviating depressing feelings. If nothing else, it takes my mind off of myself.

I think it can help, but only if you like to exercise. For those of us who aren’t athletic, it can worsen our depression.

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