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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.

Millions of people globally are suffering from depression or anxiety. There is some good news, however. An overview of systematic reviews (an “umbrella review”) of more than a thousand randomized controlled trials has found that regular physical activity can help overcome depression and reduce psychological distress.

Physical Activity Can Overcome Depression and Anxiety:

The studies demonstrated that around 150 minutes of physical activity each week helped people with depression or anxiety more than usual care (British Journal of Sports Medicine, Feb. 16, 2022). When people exercised at higher intensity, they got greater improvement in their psychological state. All types of exercise were helpful, from aerobic to resistance and even including yoga.

Those who benefited most included pregnant and postpartum women, people with HIV or kidney disease and, of course, those diagnosed with depression. Healthy people also reaped psychological benefits from exercise.

According to the authors,

“Physical activity should be a mainstay approach in the management of depression, anxiety and psychological distress.”

People with Chronic Illness Overcome Depression with 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?

Canadian scientists report that people can improve their mood and overcome depression with exercise (British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2019). 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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