An Exercise Prescription to Cure Depression

For the past 6 years, I have devoted a large part of my personal training business to clients suffering with mild to moderate depression.

Referred by a growing network of mental health professionals, people who have been suffering with depression (and to a lesser extent – anxiety) have had tremendous success reducing their symptoms of depression using a very simple yet labor intensive exercise prescription.

At first, it was very difficult to get mental health professionals to consider that exercise might help where drugs & talk therapy were failing.

depression1 300x180 An Exercise Prescription to Cure Depression

But slowly, as scientific research began to catch up with common sense, exercise therapy for depression became a slightly more acceptable treatment modality.

Flash forward to 2010…and we see the director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University telling his peers that “exercise has been shown to have tremendous benefits for mental health, and that the more therapists who are trained in exercise therapy, the better off patients will be.”

Speaking at the annual conference of the Anxiety Disorder Association of America, professors Jasper Smits and Michael Otto reported that “individuals who exercise report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of stress and anger. Exercise appears to affect, like an antidepressant, particular neurotransmitter systems in the brain, and it helps patients with depression re-establish positive behaviors.

For patients with anxiety disorders, exercise reduces their fears of fear and related bodily sensations such as a racing heart and rapid breathing.”

“Exercise can fill the gap for people who can’t receive traditional therapies because of cost or lack of access, or who don’t want to because of the perceived social stigma associated with these treatments,” he says. “Exercise also can supplement traditional treatments, helping patients become more focused and engaged.”

But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.

In a world where more and more “normal” people never find the time to be active, imagine how difficult it is for a person suffering from depression to begin and continue with a new exercise program.

It’s not as simple as their doctor telling them to take a few laps around the high school running track.

Dr. Smits believes that “rather than emphasize the long-term health benefits of an exercise program – which can be difficult to sustain – we urge providers to focus with their patients on the immediate benefits,” he says. “After just 25 minutes, your mood improves, you are less stressed, you have more energy – and you’ll be motivated to exercise again tomorrow. A bad mood is no longer a barrier to exercise; it is the very reason to exercise.

Smits says health care providers who prescribe exercise also must give their patients the tools they need to succeed, such as the daily schedules, problem-solving strategies and goal-setting featured in his guide for therapists.

“Therapists can help their patients take specific, achievable steps,” he says. “This isn’t about working out five times a week for the next year. It’s about exercising for 20 or 30 minutes and feeling better today.”

In my personal, grassroots (entirely non-medical / non-scientific) opinion, that is a great start…but I would also recommend that if the patient wants to improve their odds of success, they…

  • Get the support of their family. Organize family outings that require physical activity, go for nightly walks, etc..
  • Get the support of other depression/anxiety sufferers. Organize regular exercise sessions. While everyone’s experience with depression is unique, fellow sufferers are going to “get you” in a way that your family never will. Sharing the exercise experience with them can also improve the likelihood of adherence.
  • Get the support of an exercise professional who is sensitive to your situation. For a lot of my clients who can’t afford one on one personal training, I provide training programs designed specifically for their needs.

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If you need more info, email me or check out Drs. Smits & Otto’s book on the subject.

Doug Robb is a personal trainer, a fitness blogger and author, a competitive athlete, a social media nerd and a student of nutrition and exercise science. Since 2008, Doug has brought his real-world experience online via his health & fitness blog, Health Habits.

19 Comments

  1. Alan B

    September 6, 2013 at 11:08 am

    After suffering from depression for five years i’m convinced that exercise has helped me more than mediaction or therapy. The high I feel after completing a workout stays with me all day like a warm glow.

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  3. D&E

    July 9, 2013 at 9:09 am

    I have Anxiety and have had it for many years. I was told diet and exercise would help me so I got a personal trainer and was in the best shape of my life when the panic attacks started up again. Ate right exercised and the anxiety was unbearable so the doctor prescribed an SSRI that I refused to take right away knowing it had to be something else…. After lots of testing Doc couldn’t find anything else wrong so I started taking the poison known as Zoloft. After a couple weeks of hell my life started to change for the better, I was functioning without constant panic and fear.. I have been off of the meds for a couple years now and just wanted to say SSRIs gave me life back, I would of rather died then live in constant turmoil from anxiety. I understand the drugs are over prescribed but to make people that actually need medication feel less cause they just need to exercise is false..

    • Health Habits

      July 9, 2013 at 10:10 am

      Hi D&E

      Your situation isn’t unique to me. Never in my time working with clients with mental health issues have I ever suggested that they replace their meds with exercise..or meditation..or herbs, etc.

      We add an exercise (and usually meditation practice) to their current medical approach.

      I also suggest that sufferers…

      Get the support of their family.
      Get the support of other depression/anxiety sufferers.
      Get the support of an exercise professional who is sensitive to your situation.

      When you combine this with pharma supplied by your GP and talk therapy supplied by a mental health pro, we see that there are numerous methods for tackling depression/anxiety/etc.

      My problem with the traditional health care system is that pills are not only the first option, but quite frequently the only therapy suggested by our doctors.

      • Darci

        July 9, 2013 at 10:28 am

        I agree with you and apologize if it seemed I was attacking you.. I think it is outstanding that you help so many people. I remember feeling so helpless and hopeless even after doing most of these things, It was a very scary time.. You are 100% correct about the doctors throwing pills at us for every little ache, pain or uncomfortable feeling we have. Thank you for your commitment in helping people….. :)

        • Health Habits

          July 9, 2013 at 12:34 pm

          Hi Darci,

          I didn’t think you were on the attack…and I appreciate your personal take on my post. I am prone to mild/moderate depression and now know a LOT of people who are willing to share their experiences with anxiety/depression…and each one is different.

          One of the problems with writing a blog is that personal experiences don’t always translate well to the entire public…so I end up writing these clinical/one size fits all articles…and we both know that one size doesn’t actually fit all.

          Thanks again for commenting

          If you’re ever interested in performing a little experiment re your anxiety, I would suggest that you try scheduling a week where you perform numerous mini-workouts (2 min max) throughout the day – jog up a flight of stairs, desk push-ups, jumping jacks, etc. Nothing so strenuous that you start to sweat but hard enough to get your heart pumping. The theory is that you stimulate the pleasure/anti-anxiety/depression brain chemicals throughout the day.

          If you give it a try, I would love to hear if you notice any difference

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  6. Nick

    October 15, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Great post Doug! I like how you’ve used references from other health professionals that are experts in anxiety and depression to validate what we have seen and experienced personally with ourselves and clients. I have to remember to emphasize how the right workout will make them feel better today! I look forward to reading more of your articles.
    Thanks

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  11. qwerty

    March 29, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    I exercise regularly, 5 times a week, all cardio based (anything that makes my heart beat very fast).

    I don’t dispute exercise helps mood, you get a nice feel good when you exercise, a feeling you hav achieved something (what before felt impossible and vaguly scary) but it leaves after about an hour and my mood drops.

    I still continue to exercise, I have an exercise based obsession, but I don’t think it rids me of depression by a long shot. Helps yes, but not cures, not takes away, only reduces, takes the edge off for a little while.

    • healthhabits

      March 30, 2011 at 5:52 am

      thanks for the feedback qwerty

      I am glad that it helps. Another thing that I have learned from working with clients suffering from depression is that solo workouts are not as effective as workouts where you interact or participate with other people.

      Working with a trainer (who you get along with personally) or participating in some form of group exercise seems to help mood more. I haven’t seen any scientific literature on this – it’s just from my personal experience

  12. Travis

    November 30, 2010 at 12:42 am

    Just came across this post. I have been really into working out for the past year now, and I can say it has changed my life in so many ways. I was quite depressed before I started working out. I am no longer. Much better than drugs in my opinion.

  13. Abigail Moore

    September 12, 2010 at 10:15 am

    mental health should always be monitored closely in the same way we monitor the health of our body`:”

  14. Joel Owen

    July 26, 2010 at 9:43 am

    mental health is more important than body health yet most people just ignores it..-.

  15. Brandon Scott

    May 1, 2010 at 7:26 am

    Anxiety and depression is one hell of a nasty disease. even if you have everything but if you have clinical depression, you are still nothing.`~: