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Choose something you enjoy and begin gradually
Working out is known to improve the moods of people with depression, although why it works is still somewhat a mystery.
What is not a mystery is research which reveals that exercise intensity is not associated with the level of mood improvement. For example, in this study, all participants experienced about the same level of reduced depression after hard, moderate and light aerobic exercise.
Building regular exercise into your day will improve your day, and you can start as small as you like. Here's how.
All exercise helps your mood
This is good news because depression affects roughly 9.5% of the U.S. adult population each year. Approximately 17% of the U.S. population will suffer from a major depressive episode at some point in their lifetime.
Since people suffering from depression are generally less fit and have diminished physical work capacity - found to be 80% to 90% of age-predicted norms - exercise has a double benefit. It not only lifts their mood but also helps to improve their general physical health.
In the study which examined exercise intensity, women aged about 40 years old exercised once weekly on a stationary cycle for 20 minutes. Some exercised at a light intensity, others at a moderate or hard intensity.
Irrespective of how hard the exercise was, the participants all experienced a less depressed mood up at least 30 minutes.
The results also showed that those participants not currently taking antidepressants had the same antidepressant response to exercise compared to those taking antidepressants. In other words, antidepressant medication use does not interfere with improved mood post-exercise.
How often, for how long?
What is still to be determined is the best quantity of exercise over, say, one week.
The study quoted above used a regime of one round of exercise a week, for 20 minutes. The enhanced mood lasted for at least 30 minutes after exercise. Therefore, on face value, it would be beneficial to do aerobic exercise daily.
Other studies used two weekly 30-minute aerobic sessions and found similar results - enhanced mood.
Another study simply called people randomly eight times a day, for a week. The people were classified into two groups. One group had never reported depression, and the other group had been medically diagnosed with depression.
Researchers found that all study participants reported enhanced mood if the prompt call was soon after physical activity. The fundamental purpose of this study was to differentiate between physical activity as it occurs in everyday life instead of supervised exercise bouts. The results were encouraging.
Unlike the earlier study (above) this one found was that there was a relationship between the duration and intensity of the self-reported physical activity and mood enhancement. Higher levels of positive feelings were associated with both longer duration and higher intensity of activity.
So it appears that more might be better but not necessary.
Although optimum levels and intensity remain unknown, it is clear that moving our bodies helps us feel better. There are many studies showing associations between being in the outdoors, sunshine, and enhanced mood.
However, we don't know how physical activity improves our mood. (If you're not keen on this speculation you might want to jump directly to the recommendations in the last section.)
Five theories on why physical activity helps mood
Why exercise works to reduce mood is an open question.
However, all that said, we know there is an association between exercise and better mood, even if the cause is not understood.
How to get started, if you've been inactive
If you have not been exercising regularly, it can seem overwhelming to think of doing 30 minutes of physical activity each day.
Here's how to get started:
Of course, riding your bike, playing a game of tennis, going for a swim etc. are all fabulous as well. Just apply the same progression I've outlined above.
If you are starting with a low level of fitness, you will find moderate exercise more enjoyable than more intense activity.
If you begin with a low to moderate-intensity exercise program, you are much more likely to stick with it than if you push too hard in the beginning.
You don't need to meet the usual physical activity guidelines to benefit your mood from activity. You can start small and build up gradually. The improvement in your mood by just starting will motivate you to do more, little by little.
Get started, something simple and enjoyable. You'll feel better.
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Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter