Traditionally, doctors and psychiatrists prescribe medications and therapy to manage depression. However, these methods have varying degrees of success. The viability of each type of treatment for an individual is closely linked to how their brain is wired. For some people, exercise is actually a more effective symptom management tool than traditionally prescribed methods.
Movement causes the brain to release endorphins, which are mood-boosting hormones similar to cannabis. Acutely, people can experience a “runner’s high” and feel a significant elevation in their mood during exercise. After continuing an exercise routine for an extended period of time, the endorphins’ effects tend to last longer and lead to more prolonged positive feelings. In addition to feeling negative, low self-worth is also a symptom of depression. Exercise can increase a person’s confidence as they build more strength and endurance, which can improve self-worth. It can also help prevent a person from isolating through workout buddies, gyms, or going outdoors and become a healthy way to cope.
Any exercise will provide some benefits in boosting a person’s mood. However, aerobic exercise tends to be the most effective. In a study, people who engaged in light stretching experienced a symptom reduction of 31%, while those who did moderate intensity aerobic exercises experienced a 55% reduction. Higher intensity exercise tends to work the best, with a directly proportional relationship between the level of vigor and symptom alleviation.
While everyone can benefit from the mood-boosting powers of exercise, people with a higher level of reward processing in the brain tend to experience the greatest reduction in depression symptoms. These people frequently have more severe symptoms and are less likely to respond to medication or therapy, so they process the release of endorphins more intensely. That being said, it is hard to discern a significant change before completing eight weeks of an exercise plan, so people who stick with it are the ones who benefit the most.
This solution requires time and energy, and it may be difficult to find out if it even works for a person until eight weeks have passed. However, especially in people who haven’t responded to traditional treatment, exercise can significantly decrease depression symptoms and improve life quality.