The Antidepressant Effects of Fitness

Let's (not) talk about 2020

You don’t need us to tell you that 2020 has been… the helluva decade so far. The effects of the pandemic on social and behavioral norms has clearly taken a toll, and it probably goes without saying mental health is becoming an ever more prevalent topic as we head into the holidays.

If you’re feeling more than the usual pre-holiday blues, you’re clearly not alone. Depression affects almost 10% of adults in the United States each year, and, according to this abstract, as many as 17% of the U.S. population will suffer from a major depressive episode at some point in their lifetime. And a study published in September and conducted by researchers at Boston University found that the influence of the pandemic has manifested a three-fold increase in those figures. Call it the effects of this “new normal,” or abnormal, as so many of us are adapting to this ever-changing environment.

 

Fitness has been proven to help

While you might rather hear that your preferred snacks have antidepressant qualities, (anecdotally, we can attest that it seems like they might), here is some actual science that demonstrates fitness can provide an all-natural boost to help mitigate feelings of depression. Among other findings, exercise was found to be more effective in reducing depression than social support or (of course) doing nothing. Research also indicates that the effects of exercise on depression can be longer lasting than just the immediate workouts — the results of one study found adults who worked out over a 12 week period reported great improvements in depression and anxiety, and were able to maintain those goals through a 12-month followup.

Strength training was proven equally beneficial as running for its antidepressant effects.

The reason I exercise is for the quality of life I enjoy.

Kenneth H. Cooper
Doctor of Medicine • Retired Air Force Pilot • Pioneer in identifying benefits of aerobic exercise

Fitness can be as effective as other treatments*

“For some people [fitness] works as well as antidepressants,” explains Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. It almost sounds too easy, but findings have shown that exercise — and running in particular — compares in effect to the common psychotherapies in treating depression. And it doesn’t stop there — engaging the body in exercise is already well-known to help fight diabetes, heart disease, and stress. But in this arena, we’re looking at more than just the “runner’s high” endorphins dumped post-workout. Findings, like these summarized by Harvard Medical School, indicate the real benefits come from lower intensity, sustained workouts over time — this activity spurs the release of neurotrophic proteins, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. The brain improves function as a result, leading to relief from depression.

 

Physical effects of depression

While it’s been demonstrated to be beneficial at reducing depression and anxiety, building and sticking to a fitness regimen has its own considerations. “Exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression,” Dr. Miller said. While it has been shown to be as effective as medication for mild to moderately depressed adults, it isn’t always the right therapy (see our list below of important contact numbers if you feel you might need help). Additionally, depression manifests itself physically in a myriad of ways — aches, fatigue, changes in energy level, and other maladies can create obstacles to building a fitness habit. 

The good news? Even small amounts of physical activity, like walking, for even just a few minutes a day can have exponentially significant benefits in reducing depression. 

Getting started can be hard, but you can do it. There are a few simple ways to help get (and keep) you on track with your exercise.

Find an accountability buddy. This can be a friend, even a socially-distanced one. Or, perhaps a personal trainer (we know a few). 

Add some reminders. If you’re the kind who’s motivated by encouraging reminders, your smartwatch or smartphone can help! Answer a few key questions and your chosen device will let you know when it’s time to move. If the reminders make you feel overwhelmed or anxious instead, try something simpler, like a sticky-note on the mirror or on your computer keyboard. (Don’t believe us? This article shows the link between handwriting and memory).

Start small. No really, smaller. If it’s been a while, or you’re experiencing some of the physical symptoms of depression listed above, this is the perfect time to be extra-gentle with yourself. Start with just a few minutes of movement a day — walking, mindful stretching, dancing… really anything that gets you moving — and plan on adding a few minutes every few days or each week. The first priority is consistency, then, as the process becomes more of a habit, you can add layers of intensity or exploration. VENT Fitness offers a variety of in-person and virtual options, like Mobility, Yoga, Ptale, and Ride to (re)introduce you to a consistent, gentle, anxiety-busting habit.

Find something you like. Studies, like this one that included only people identified as clinically depressed, have shown there is no significant difference in effect whether participants opted for one type of exercise or another, or chose a higher or lower intensity workout. The main modifier seems to be the length of time participants continued their efforts. In this case, programs that lasted nine weeks or longer created the greatest reduction in depression. This means whether you’re walking, running, lifting, or dancing, the keys are consistency and duration.

VENT Virtual is an easy way to ensure you keep your workouts on track no matter where you are.

Virtual workouts -- anxiety antidote anywhere

If you haven’t been active since (before) March, don’t worry. The gyms are open and safe, and with the help of our members and staff, workouts are back and (safely) on the rise. If a visit to the club isn’t at the top of your schedule, VENT Fitness has become more accessible than ever with the launch of our all-new VENT Virtual. This new program set allows you to stream classes live from our clubs on any of your preferred devices. It’s simple, and it’s free,* which makes it an easy addition to your daily routine (maybe sometime before or after your Netflix queue). Watch for new additions each week!

VENT Virtual Livestream + the App

VENT Virtual will offer a variety of classes in real time, and for some members, this may help provide a sense of community and camaraderie that isn’t available using other forms of virtual workouts. Right now, members can peruse RIDE, HIIT, Total Body and other formats, but can expect to see more Livestream classes added to the schedule in the coming weeks. One of the perks will also be trackability — members who also sync their workouts using the VENT Fitness app can schedule themselves into class, see real-time biofeedback, a virtual leader board, and more. 

The Takeaway

Fitness — and specifically consistent, lower-intensity efforts over a longer range of time — provides demonstrated, lasting effects on reducing depression and anxiety. It provides an all-natural alternative or addition to more conventional therapies, and its side effects include stronger immunity, improved cardiovascular health, a reduction in the incidence of several common diseases, as well as a boost in self-confidence, the potential for a new hobby, and a (welcome) distraction. 

Now's a good time to share resources to help

Mental health is important. Here are some numbers and sites to bookmark in case you or someone you love is feeling overwhelmed.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255

Disaster Distress Helpline 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746

Additional resources and suggestions are available at the CDC website.

*We are not suggesting fitness or exercise take the place of conventional therapies.
As with all health endeavors, it’s best to check with your medical care provider(s)
before beginning any fitness regimen.