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The Impact of Exercise on Depression

The human body was designed to move, and it did so from the very moment of conception. For individuals grappling with depression, a prevalent mental health condition affecting millions of people worldwide, the multiple benefits of exercise on stress reduction, cognitive function and social connection are often as good as, if not superior, to traditional medical treatments.

Engaging in physical activity can empower individuals to live their most vibrant life or at the minimum, have a brighter outlook on life. Be it an exhilarating hike, a jog around the block, swimming, riding a bicycle or walking up and down the stairs in your home, the magic of movement will improve your mood as you journey towards physical and mental well-being.  

Emerging research suggests that exercise can play a pivotal role in alleviating the symptoms of depression. Let us explore the profound impact of exercise on depression, shedding light on the biological and psychological mechanisms at play. By understanding the science behind the connection, people struggling with depression can embrace exercise as a valuable strategy that can be helpful in their journey towards fighting depression.

Additionally, engaging in regular physical activity triggers the production of stress-reducing hormones, such as norepinephrine and endorphins, commonly known as “feel-good” chemicals, which act as natural painkillers and mood enhancers. These hormones combat chronic stress, which is often a contributing factor to depression. Additionally, exercise provides an outlet for pent-up tension, allowing individuals to channel their energy into more productive and positive activity. By doing so, exercise acts as a powerful antidote to anxiety, fostering a sense of calmness and improving overall mental resilience and gives what is considered the best “natural high.”

“Early experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behaviour, and health. Just as a weak foundation compromises the quality and strength of a house, adverse experiences early in life can impair brain architecture, with negative effects lasting into adulthood.”  

This quote emphasises the importance of creating positive experiences in one’s life, preferably at an early age. With significant stressful events, the developing brain weakens and leads to lifelong problems in learning, behaviour, and physical and mental health.

It is important for us as humans to experience stress in our lives as this helps the body prepare to deal with stress, through a range of physiological reactions, which is a natural part of healthy development. The problem, however, is when toxic stress remains constant for long periods of time, it causes the development of neural connections to become impaired. 

Exercise boosts the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, both of which play a vital role in regulating mood, appetite, and even sleep patterns. This neurochemical boost reduces depressive symptoms and enhances one’s sense of well-being and self-esteem. By providing an outlet for pent-up tensions and emotions, negative energy is channelled into reducing stress and anxiety. 

When one is in the throes of depression, it is difficult to concentrate or to effectively manage one’s emotions. Another undisputed benefit of exercise is the enhancement of cognitive function. You will be able to think more clearly as your memory, attention and executive function improve. Regular exercise increases neuroplasticity which is the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself. As a natural anti-depressant, exercise reduces feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and anger.

Better yet, when you exercise with a partner, friend, or in a team or group setting, depression leading to social isolation and withdrawal is less likely, as opportunities for social interaction and support is presented. As confidence and self-esteem increase, depressive symptoms gradually dissipate.

During the years of the past pandemic, many young people were affected by depression and suicide rates for this group increased. An interesting study conducted by Canadian and international researchers showed that “The COVID-19 pandemic had a detrimental impact on the physical activity of youth but not adults… and led to changes in health behaviours, including physical activity.”

The Mood Disorders Society of Canada, quoting from the World Health Organization (WHO), reports that exercise is known to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, panic disorder and depression and that only moderate exercise is needed to reduce these symptoms. It also reports that the 3rd leading cause of disease burden worldwide is depression and the expected leading cause of disease burden by 2030 is depression.

A recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that “running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26 percent.” With these statistics, we would be well-advised to force ourselves to exercise more frequently and treat it as an important health benefit.

Finally, engaging in physical activity provides a healthy and constructive outlet for negative emotions, promoting emotional stability and resilience. Exercise promotes a sense of belonging and camaraderie, especially when working out with a friend; it combats feelings of loneliness that often accompany depression.

Embracing an active lifestyle by incorporating exercise routines is a big step towards the transformation to a brighter, more confident and fulfilled person. 

Janet Bennett-Cox | Contributing Writer

Winter 2023

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