What is Depression?
Depression is a widespread and serious mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability globally and affects more than 264 million people of all ages. This makes it the most prevalent mental health condition. 
In the United States, depression is also a common mental health condition. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 8% of American adults experience depression in a given year, and 16% experience it at some point in their lifetime.
Depression can have a significant impact on an individual's quality of life and overall functioning. Symptoms may include persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, inadequacy, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, changes in appetite or sleep, low energy, and feelings of guilt or helplessness.
Physical exercise is an effective way to help alleviate symptoms of depression. Think about it. Does it ever happen to you that you feel better after exercising, running, or simply walking for a few minutes when you're feeling down or anxious? Nowadays, it is hardly a secret that exercise boosts your mood and mental health.
Reconnecting the mind and body
Exercise helps you cope healthily instead of trying to cope by brooding or drinking alcohol. Doing something positive to manage depression is more than just a beneficial coping strategy; it’s a strategy that is proven by modern science.
For a long time, it has been known that exercise is good for physical health. Decades of research have shown that regular sports activity decreases the risk of developing many diseases and increases lifespan.
But the benefits of exercise on mental health are less known. Usually, you do sports to “stay in shape.” However, do you consider physical exercise a serious mental illness treatment as effective as medication or sessions with psychologists?
Yes, science says so for depressive disorders. Indeed, physical exercise is not a miracle cure and can even be futile in cases of severe depression. But it is more than a mental lure or simple palliative treatment for most patients with mild or moderate depression. It would even be one of the most effective, safest, convenient, economical, and enjoyable treatments available.
Exercise reduces stress, improves sleep quality, and increases self-esteem, all of which can help alleviate depression symptoms. When you exercise, the body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with receptors in your brain that reduce pain perception. They also trigger a positive sensation throughout the body, similar to that caused by morphine. 
What Research Says
While exercise is by no means a cure for depression, it plays an essential role in symptom management alongside medication and psychotherapy.
In 2018, a meta-analysis found that resistance exercise (lifting weights) markedly reduced depression symptoms in adults. The study found that adults with mild to moderate depression experienced a significant reduction in depressive symptoms when they engaged in resistance exercises for two or more days a week, compared to patients who did not lift weights. 
Another 2018 study demonstrated that physical activity leads to a more significant reduction in symptoms of depression and a more remarkable improvement in cognitive function and sleep quality. Of the participants, 75% showed either complete remission of depression symptoms or therapeutic response, compared with 25% of those who did not exercise. 
Researchers also began to look at the issue from a different angle, as in the correlation between regular physical activity and decreased depressive symptoms.
For example, a 2020 study showed that people with low muscle and aerobic fitness levels are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression. 
In recent years, these findings have led the medical community to conclude that exercise is a vital tool in treating depression and may even improve the effectiveness of conventional antidepressants.
Exercise vs Antidepressants
In some ways, exercising has chemical effects comparable to those of antidepressants.
Studies have shown that aerobic exercise can be as effective as a group of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in people with mild or moderate depression. The reason is that both SSRIs and exercise work through a similar biological pathway in the brain related to tryptophan, serotonin, and its receptors. 
There are several reasons for using exercise as a first-line treatment:
- Exercise has far fewer adverse side effects than antidepressants, like the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and obesity.
- Exercise can give the patient a sense of power over their recovery, which counteracts the feelings of hopelessness often associated with depression.
- Exercise is a sustainable behavior change. When it becomes a habit, it contributes to an overall healthy lifestyle.
- Exercise does not carry the stigma usually linked with medication or counseling.
Start and Overcome Barriers To Exercise
Exercise routines or regular physical activity can be challenging to begin and maintain. The following steps can help:
- Identify your purpose! Ask yourself the question "Why am I doing this?". What are your goals for being active? Having a goal will help you stay motivated when things get tough.
- Set realistic goals! To stay on track while exercising, setting small, attainable goals is essential. To start, set a goal to exercise two or three days a week for two weeks. Once you've reached that goal, add another day. A little accomplishment goes a long way toward improving your mental and physical health.
- Find a sports partner! It's not only more fun to exercise with a friend, but it can also empower you and hold you accountable!
- Find what works for you! A good workout can be a time for you to clear your mind and focus on yourself, so why not enjoy it? Try out different exercises and see which ones work best for you. Try moving at different times of the day, in different settings, alone or with friends, until you find what motivates you to keep going!
You can improve your physical and mental health by engaging in regular physical activity. Although research has proven its benefits and ability to reduce depressive symptoms in cases of mild to moderate depression, it is not a substitute for medical treatment or therapy in some cases. Always check with your doctor.
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Depressive disorder (depression) (who.int)
Endorphins and exercise - PubMed (nih.gov)
Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials - PubMed (nih.gov)
Frontiers | Exercise Leads to Better Clinical Outcomes in Those Receiving Medication Plus Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Major Depressive Disorder (frontiersin.org)
Individual and combined associations between cardiorespiratory fitness and grip strength with common mental disorders: a prospective cohort study in the UK Biobank - PubMed (nih.gov)
Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression? - PMC (nih.gov)