I often talk about how important it is to exercise regularly when you are feeling low but it recently dawned on me that I never explained why.
My mentor Ed JC Smith repeatedly says that it is scientifically proven that you cannot be depressed while you run. That comment intrigued me so I went and did some research on the subject. And this is what I found.
But before we dived into the details of neuroscience, let’s look at how exercise helps you relieve depression
How exercise helps you relieve depression
Almost everything that depression causes can be fought with exercise. Here are the details:
- Depression make you lethargic and tired, exercise gives you more energy and vitality
- Depression affect your sleep, exercise improves it
- Depression affect your eating habits, exercise will restore a healthy appetite
- Depression makes it hard to concentrate, exercise makes you mentally sharper and better at planning and decision making
- Depression lower your mood, exercise improves it, reduces anxiety, decreases stress and boosts self-esteem.
- Depression keeps you isolated, exercise brings you out into the world.
The neurological mechanics of depression
Our brains are wonderful things. In his book The Upward Spiral Alex Korb, neuroscientist specialised in mood disorders, explains the neurological mechanics of depression.
“Essentially, your brain is full of intricate, interacting neural circuits. […] There are circuits for sleep, memory, mood, planning, enjoyment, and more, and they all communicate with each other. […] The disease of depression is a pattern of activity that arises from the interactions of these circuits.”
So the good news is, to get better all we need to do is to target these circuits. Easy!
Dr Alex Korb then goes through the different chemicals coming into play when you suffer from depression:
- Serotonin – improves willpower, motivation and mood
- Norepinephrine – enhance thinking, focus and dealing with stress
- Dopamine – increases enjoyment and is necessary for changing bad habits
- Oxytocin – promotes feelings of trust, love, and connection, and reduces anxiety
- GABA – increases feelings of relaxation and reduces anxiety
- Melatonin – enhances the quality of sleep
- Endorphins – provide pain relief and feelings of elation
- Endocannabinoids – improve your appetite and increase feelings of peacefulness and wellbeing
In the second part of the book Dr Alex Korb very helpfully explains how to reverse the effects of depression naturally by taking a series of actions. By the way most of these actions are actions that I have previously recommended on this blog – just saying.
If you want to go deeper into this subject I highly recommend his book. I will also write a more detailed summary of the book soon as I have found it extremely helpful so watch this space.
What happens in your brain when you exercise
So now that you roughly get the mechanics of depression, let’s go back to our original topic: what happens in your brain when you exercise. Well, according to Dr Alex Korb quite a lot.
Exercise strengthens your brain
Exercise increases nerve growth factors. These make your brain stronger, and so your brain become more resistant to all kind of problems, including depression. Exercise also causes growth of new neurons, which in turn increases grey matter.
Now guess what antidepressant medication does? It increases the growth of the nerve factors. So really exercising has the same effect on the brain that antidepressants. Now, let me think about that one:
- Option A: go for a run which will naturally target the right chemicals and give me zero side effect apart from a few sore muscles, or
- Option B: take medication that will affect my entire body chemistry and give a very long list of evil side effects
Humm… I think I know what I’ll do. What about you?
Exercise boost your serotonin activity
Movement causes your brain to release more serotonin. And when more serotonin is released, more is produced to keep up with demand.
Also serotonin and the nerve factors we talked about above work together. Serotonin stimulates the production of the nerve factors, and the nerve factors strengthens serotonin neurons. So exercise set things in motion and the brain keeps it going. Clever, no?
And once again, just for the record, antidepressants also work to increase serotonin.
Exercise increases your norepinephrine
All exercises increase norepinephrine but the more intense the exercise, the more benefits you get. This is also a chemical targeted by antidepressants. Seeing the common theme yet?
Exercise increases your levels of dopamine
Dopamine is the brain’s own version of amphetamines. The dopamine circuit in the brain controls aspects of pleasure, decision making and focus. Dysfunctional dopamine explains the lack of enjoyment that often goes with depression. This can be reversed by exercising which will increases your dopamine levels.
Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins
Endorphins send neural signals to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief and as a result they improve your mood. They act like opiates.
Endorphins act in the parts of the brain influencing:
- motivation and decision making
- planning and thinking
- pain perception
Endorphin signalling in all of these areas is improved by exercise. And same as with the norepinephrine, the more intense the exercise, the bigger the boost.
Exercise increases activation of the endocannabinoid system
Just like dopamine and endorphins, endocannabinoids is another “natural drug” activated during exercise. It reduces pain sensitivity and gives a sense of wellbeing. It was named after cannabis because it has similar effect.
Exercise reduces stress hormones
Studies have shown that stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are dramatically reduced in people who exercise regularly.
In a nutshell
- Out of the 8 main chemicals that are involved in the mechanics of depression, 6 of them are positively impacted by exercising
- Exercising help activate 3 of the chemicals that are targeted by antidepressant medication
- Exercising activates 3 “natural drug” responsible for making you feel good
- The more intensive the exercise, the bigger the benefits
So do I even need to say it? Exercising is clearly THE first action to take when you start feeling low.
Let’s get you started
You don’t feel like exercising? Of course you don’t. But it isn’t you talking, it is the depression. So here are a few tips that might help you get started gently. Again, these are Dr Alex Korb’s recommendations and I couldn’t agree more.
When you don’t think of exercise as “exercise” but rather as “being active” or “having fun” you are more likely to do it and it will have a bigger emotional effect. If you cycle to work a few times a week or go a salsa class with a friend, it won’t feel like you’re exercising, but you will feel the benefit.
Take a friend with you
Social interaction is good to fight depression and social pressure will push you to exercise. If you have said to a friend that you will meet them at the HIT class, you will go even if you don’t feel like it just because you wouldn’t want to let your friend down.
Commit to a brief trial period
Meaning for example:
- Sign up to a class and commit to go to the first three
- Join a gym and promise yourself that you will go every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for two weeks
Enjoy the view
Studies have shown that the benefits of exercise are boosted when you are exercising either in a nice environment or while looking at pictures of a nice environment. So pick somewhere pretty to exercise!
Think about what’s important to you
When you connect your exercise to a long-term goal, it helps you push through the difficult part and it makes your exercise more satisfying.
For me it is of course about having a healthy mind (and getting back into my pretty seize 10 dresses).
Exercise before you reward yourself
Before you sit down to watch TV or any other relaxing activity, make sure you have earned it by doing something before. For example, 5 push-up. You’ll enjoy the relaxation more knowing that you deserve it.
Keep an exercise plan
Plan when you will exercise and check it off afterwards. Both actions impact on the good circuits so both have a positive effect on raising your mood.
Personally I highlight in yellow every day on a monthly planner that I exercise. It has the added benefit of helping me see how much I have achieved, which motivates me to keep going.
Make it simple
Keep is simple, it will be easier to convince yourself to do it. For example, commit to do one push-up when you get up. If you feel like doing more, go for it but if not then you’ve done well already.
Keep it at your own level. The only comparison that matters is the comparison with yourself so choose something that will stretch you a little but is achievable. No need to follow your super fit friend to a kettle bell class if you have never lifted a weight in your whole life. It will be painful and you will never go again. Not talking from experience here of course.
Make an anti-laziness rule
Agree with yourself that going forward you will (for example):
- always take the stairs rather than the lift
- walk instead of drive for short distances
- park a little further so that you have to walk a little more
Make it your own, you’re more likely to follow through if it resonates with you.
How it has worked for me
Over the last few years I have drastically increase the time I spent exercising. Exercising is now part of my normal routine and I wouldn’t go without it as it has had a huge impact on my mental health.
Here is my current routine (I say current because I tend to regularly change my exercise routine as I like variety).
I have been practicing yoga for about 5 years now with the same teacher, apart for the 18 months I was based in Denmark. I have learned and grown a lot thanks to Michelle and I am very grateful to her. I talk more about the benefits of yoga in “How meditation can help relieve your depression”.
I attend an advanced 90 minutes class on Monday evening and this is a sacred slot, that I very rarely cancel. I have to be very ill or away not to go. This class is particularly helpful when I feel low as it is a safe space for me to just be as I am.
Healthy Lean and Sexy
This is a program that my mentor Ed JC Smith started on the 1st of January and that I describe more in “The power of accountability”.
I currently get up at 5:45am Monday to Friday to start exercising at 6am (I am more flexible at the weekend). Three days a week we spend 20 minutes on a specific group of muscles and then go for either a walk or a jog (depending on fitness level) for 40 minutes. Another three days we go straight out for a walk or a jog for 60 minutes. On the last day we do 20 minutes stretch and then 40 minutes’ walk or jog. We finish each day with 10 minutes of mindfulness.
This has been a very good challenge for me. I have to say that I haven’t done it EVERY single because, well sometimes life gets in the way. But the days I do it are usually better days than the days I don’t.
When I start my day with exercise, I just feel good and I feel like I have done something positive for myself. And so whatever drama the day brings, it will be fine because I have been for a run.
As I have mentioned in my last post January has been challenging (as usual for me), but somehow this year it has been a little easier and I think that this is partly due to exercising regularly.
There was this one day where I came home very upset from work. I hadn’t been out in the morning, because I had a very early start at work. When I came home, instead of hitting the wine (which would be my default setting) I went for a run. And I felt so much better afterwards than I promised myself that this would be my new default setting. I can still enjoy a glass of wine later on. And I will enjoy it more as I will have deserved it.
Try these simple hacks and let me know how you get on
Have you tried using exercising as a way to improve your mental health? What works well for you? I’d love to hear your stories. Let me know in the comments.
And remember, happiness is a choice, and you are in charge!