Exercise & Depression
by Cuyler Hudson, PT, DPT, FAFS
Depression affects over 100 million people worldwide, and can be absolutely devastating to a person’s health and quality of life. It is a very misunderstood and stigmatized condition, which often goes untreated for far too long. Now, you might be asking yourself, “Why is a physical therapist writing about a psychological disorder?” Well, as it turns out, research is showing more and more that at a basic level, orthopedic and psychological issues aren’t so different after all, and an effective treatment for both might be similar…exercise!
In an orthopedic injury, something in your kinetic chain gets “stuck.” It could be a movement habit developed from sitting too much, compensatory patterns from an old injury/traumatic event, or weakness from a sedentary lifestyle. This leads to a cascade effect, which results in overuse, impingement, or instability somewhere along the chain. In the case of depression, things also get “stuck.” This time, however, it’s the receptor-neurotransmitter relationship somewhere in the limbic system, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, or hippocampus that’s causing problems with the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine, leading to a mood imbalance. This can be triggered by stress, traumatic events, or even simply genetics.
The use of a targeted exercise program for the rehabilitation of orthopedic injuries is well documented and accepted in the medical community (thus the field of physical therapy). However, exercise also has a well documented history of success in improving symptoms of depression. In a number of studies, it has been shown to be as, or more, effective as a treatment for depression than certain antidepressant drugs. Exercise floods your brain with the neurotransmitters that are “stuck” in those with clinical depression (serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine). Doing this routinely can help balance mood and promote an improved sense of well being. The beautiful thing is that it doesn’t even matter what type of exercise you perform. Anything that raises the heart rate for an extended period of time has the exact same effect, so “targeted” exercises for depression should really just be targeted at whatever the affected person enjoys the most!
This is not to say that regular exercise will cure everyone’s depression; talk therapy and pharmacological intervention will play a huge role in a lot of cases.
However, if you are worried about a friend and you’re looking to do something that may help ease some depressive symptoms, the very best thing you can do is to invite that person on an easy run with you, maybe a coffee walk, or for a game of basketball, or to the gym for a weight lifting session. You might just have a major impact on the way both the body and brain function.