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Physical Exercise Can Lower, Even Prevent, Depression

New research suggests that 15 minutes of exercise can reduce depression.

Physical exercise is one of the most reliable ways to improve mood, and this is strongly supported by scientific research. Two new studies published in JAMA Psychiatry continues to suggest that exercise can reduce depression and even help prevent depression.

The first study found that more physical activity was associated with better mood, energy, and sleep. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health examined physical activity in 242 people who both had and did not have a history of a mood disorder diagnosis. Mood disorder diagnoses included bipolar I disorder (24 people), bipolar II disorder (29 people), and major depressive disorder (91 people) along with people who had no diagnosis of a mood disorder (97 people). Researchers tracked sleep and movement with a wrist device and also had participants complete a diary four times a day to record mood and energy levels. Exercising in the afternoon was particularly better for mood and energy later on in the day.

Physical activity and exercise can also prevent depression as well. A second study from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital examined two large genetic analyses. Researchers found that gene variants associated with being active lowered the risk for depression. Although the study was based on genetics data, researchers suggested that adding one hour of moderate activity or 15 minutes of intense physical activity to a daily routine would be able lower the risk of depression by 25 percent.

Depression can make it very difficult to feel motivated to leave the house to exercise. Depression often comes with low energy, sluggishness, social isolation, and a sense of hopelessness, so understandably it can be very difficult to get out of bed and want to go to the gym or outside for a walk. Here are some of the ways I like to recommend to encourage people to exercise:

1. Use "smart feet." There is a concept called “smart feet” which is to follow your feet to places that you know are good for you rather than think too much about it ahead of time. This emphasizes the importance of not waiting for mental motivation or thoughts to motivate you to leave the house and go to the gym.

  • Instead of waiting for a desire to exercise to strike you, follow your "smart feet" to get to places that you know are good for you, like the gym or a forest hike.

2. Make exercise part of your regular routine.

  • Choose a regular time for you to exercise and carve out this time on your schedule.
  • Prepare your workout clothes, shoes, and water bottle, ahead of time. Have these items easily laid out and accessible the day before so you don’t get distracted by what you are going to wear or other delays the next day. Keep these items in the same place so it becomes part of your routine. You could even have a workout bag that you can just take it and go, so you don’t have to think about it.

3. Choose exercise that is convenient and fun.

  • Choose workouts or physical activities like hiking, running, swimming, or yoga that you enjoy.
  • Make exercise convenient for you. Find a gym near work or your home. The more convenient and fun it is, the more likely you will go.
  • Tell yourself that you can just go for 10 to 15 minutes. You don't have to commit for an intense hour-long workout. It’s likely that you’ll find it more enjoyable once you’re already there and will want to stay for longer as an option, but you don’t need to commit to more time if you don’t want to. Remember, the study found that even 15 minutes of exercise can reduce depression by 25 percent. You'll get the benefit even with a short workout.

Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC © 2019

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