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Exercise is the most potent yet underutilised medicine for Depression and Anxiety

We all know that exercise helps prevent and improve a number of physical health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis but research has also shown that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help improve mood and reduce anxiety. The links aren’t entirely clear – but working out and other forms of physical activity can definitely ease symptoms of depression or anxiety and make you feel better. Exercise may also help keep depression and anxiety from coming back once you’re feeling better.

How can it help?

Regular activity and exercise can assist by:

  • Releasing feel-good endorphins. These enhance your sense of well-being by triggering a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine.

  • Taking your mind off worries so you can break the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety.

  • Improving confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost self-confidence. Getting in shape can make you feel better about your appearance.

  • Improving social interaction. Exercise and physical activity may give you the chance to meet or socialise with others – which in turn can help mood.

  • Providing a healthy coping strategy rather than trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how you feel or hoping depression or anxiety will go away on its own. These unhealthy strategies can actually lead to worsening symptoms.

What activity and exercise counts?

This doesn’t just have to include formal exercise programmes, but rather – any activity that works your muscles and requires energy. Examples could include work, household or leisure activities. It is basically anything that gets you off the sofa and moving.

What should I aim for?

Ideally doing 30 minutes of physical activity a day for three to five days a week should significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. This may seem like a big task – at least initially. So aim for smaller amounts – as little as 10 to 15 minutes as this can also make a difference. Tips:

  • When starting an exercise routine or regular physical activity it is important that you first identify what you enjoy doing. Figure out what you are most likely to do, and when and how you’d be more likely to follow through. It needs to be something you enjoy otherwise you will soon lose motivation.

  • Think realistically about what you may be able to do and begin gradually. Set reasonable goals you are likely to achieve. Build from there.

  • Look at your exercise or physical activity schedule the same way as you look at medication and/or therapy sessions – as one of the tools to help you get better. Try not to see exercise as a chore.

  • Figure out what’s stopping you from being physically active or exercising. By analysing your barriers to exercise you will be able to think about ways to overcome these and probably find alternative solutions.

  • Give yourself credit for every small step you take – no matter how small. If you face setbacks and obstacles then that doesn’t mean you should just quit. Just try again and stick with it.

  • Talk to your doctor or other professionals you may be working with for advice and support. It is particularly important to check with your doctor prior to starting any new form of exercise so they can check it is safe for you to start. Lots of surgeries across the country can also ‘prescribe exercise’ as a treatment for a range of conditions, including depression. This means that an exercise programme may be offered to you for free or at a reduced cost depending on your circumstances and availability locally.


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