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Whether your definition of physical activity is going for the occasional walk or you rarely spend much time outdoors at all, there's no doubt that incorporating more regular exercise into your lifestyle can be a major boost to your overall health. Chances are that you know working out with strength-training and a cardiovascular routine can help boost energy levels, improve physical ability and manage weight, but you might be surprised to learn about the psychological benefits of exercise as well.
According to the Harvard University Medical School, people who exercise on a regular basis are better equipped to deal with and overcome a range of cognitive, behavioral and emotional difficulties. In particular, numerous studies dating back to 1981 have shown that working out can enable people living with minor, moderate or severe depression overcome their emotional pain and get their lives back on track. That's not to mention the mental health advantages of incorporating more nutritious foods into daily meals, which can enhance the physical and neurological processes of the body and brain.
Link between mental and physical health
Living with depression can feel like a serious burden on your daily life, making it difficult to enjoy formerly pleasurable experiences while interfering with your productivity at work, school and home. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health reported that while many people experience moments of intense sadness at one point or another in their lives, those with severe depression experience symptoms frequently for long periods of time.
While simply hopping on an exercise bike or going for a quick run is not enough to counteract the negative physical and psychological effects of depression, developing and sticking to a weekly exercise plan can help individuals gradually overcome the condition.
According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the main reasons that frequent exercise can improve depressive symptoms is because of the bodily benefits of working out. Weight-training and cardio can help minimize the presence of conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis and related cardiovascular issues. As a result, this can improve the mental state of individuals living with depression, anxiety and stress.
"When you exercise your body releases endorphins. Endorphins react with receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain," fitness and nutrition expert Hillary Irwin, M.S., R.D., of SimplyBeautifulMom.com, wrote in an email. "Movement alone also helps reduce muscle tension and pain. People feel happier when they are not in pain. Endorphins also trigger positive feelings in the body making you feel more optimistic and positive. Regular exercise increases your energy, your self-esteem and can provide a sense of control. It can also improve your sleeping habits and provide an outlet for negative energy."
Getting started with a new fitness regimen
For those living with moderate to severe depression, simply beginning a new workout routine can seem easier said than done. Despite the lack of familiarity with exercise equipment, health club etiquette or keeping their bodies in motion for extended stretches of time, getting started working out on a regular basis can seem intimidating and potentially embarrassing for beginners - two issues that many depressed individuals struggle to overcome as it is. Low confidence and a lack of energy can stop beginners right in their tracks.
To ease into this healthier lifestyle, HelpGuide.org recommends that people new to exercise start out small and not fret over achieving results akin to those who have been working out for many years in gyms and health clubs. Simply climbing onto an exercise bike for 30 minutes or going for a brief 15 minute run on a treadmill a few times a week can be enough to become accustomed to exercising regularly in the beginning. Exercise can also extend to taking the stairs at work or walking around the block at lunchtime - anything that gets you moving can help contribute to a developing workout plan.
"Buy a new workout outfit, download some of your favorite music and grab a friend," wrote Irwin in her email. "Make a plan to meet three mornings a week to go for a walk or to take a class. Scheduling the exercise in your calendar and knowing that you made a commitment to a friend is a great way to get you out the door. Start off slowly. Set simple goals. Find an activity that you enjoy - walking, biking, dancing. If you like it, you are more likely to stick with it. Regular exercise not only gets you moving, it gets you out of the house and encourages you to interact with people all which help improve mood."
Nutritional impact on depression
In addition to getting more physical activity, selecting more nutritious foods as part of a healthy diet can have numerous advantages for people living with ongoing depression. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that one of the most effective dietary elements in combating depression is omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in a variety of fish like tuna, trout, sardines, salmon, herring and mackerel.
People who are lacking in omega-3 fatty acids often experience poor physical and mental health, including feelings of depression, intense shifts in mood, general exhaustion and memory issues. Deficiency of these nutrients can also cause heart issues and poor circulation, which can often be associated with depression.
Irwin also notes that a diet that is varied in its nutritional content - with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, healthy protein and whole grains - can boost physical functions of the body and help improve mood.
"Work on increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein and healthy fat - when your body is well nourished it functions better giving you more energy and improving your overall health and sense of wellbeing. Focus on increasing your intake of antioxidants (brightly colored fruits and vegetables) to combat damaging effects of free radicals," wrote Irvin. "Carbohydrates release serotonin in the brain increasing your sense of wellbeing and giving your mood a boost. Cutting out all carbs will decrease your serotonin levels. Just make sure to choose whole food sources of carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables). Make sure to include sources of Omega 3's. Studies have shown that countries that eat a higher quantity of omega 3's have lower rates of depression. Sources include: fatty fish [including] anchovy, salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel), flaxseeds, chia seeds and nuts."
Cybex is a provider and manufacturer of premium commercial fitness equipment. Content featured in the Cybex Fitness Blog is meant to inspire healthy living and wellness and should not be taken as medical advice. For medical advice please consult a doctor.