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Exercise and depression

Regular exercise isn't just good for the body, it has benefits for a person's mental health as well, including helping to treat or prevent depression.

Although exercise may help low mood, always seek medical advice for symptoms of depression so it can be diagnosed and professional recommendations made about lifestyle chances and treatment.

How does exercise help with depression?

Exercising releases chemicals in the brain called endorphins that cause a positive feeling. In extreme cases some people find a hard workout can result in a 'runner's high'.

Endorphins also help reduce pain feelings.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says that for mild or moderate depression, structured and supervised exercise "can be an effective intervention that has a clinically significant impact on depressive symptoms."

The Chief Medical Officer says that physical activity can be as successful as psychotherapy or medication.

In some cases a GP can 'prescribe' exercise as a treatment to try before antidepressants or other approaches. This could be free or discounted gym or leisure centre membership for a period of time.

NICE recommends around 3 sessions of 45-60 minutes exercise a week over 10-12 weeks for depression.

Exercise as a treatment for depression benefits

The Mental Health Foundation says exercise treatment for depression has several benefits, including:

  • Fewer side-effects than antidepressants
  • Gives a sense of power over people's own recovery
  • Reduces stress
  • Helps sleep
  • Good for physical health too
  • Can lead to long-term benefits once exercise becomes a habit
  • Fits well with a healthy lifestyle - healthy eating, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol
  • No stigma that may be linked to taking antidepressants or attending counselling or therapy
  • It works - with one survey suggesting that 85% of people with mental health problems found exercise was helpful.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 29, 2016

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