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Exercise for Depression: How It Helps

Being physically active should be part of depression treatment, experts say.

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“When I was in graduate school, learning about different types of therapy, exercise was never mentioned,” Baxter says of the early inspiration for her practice. “That blew my mind.”

As the idea for PsychFit began to form, about eight years ago, Baxter began sharing her plans with other therapists, as well as doctors and personal trainers.

“They loved it,” she recalls, especially the personal trainers.

“They would tell me about women who would start crying on the treadmill,” she says. “They didn’t know what to do with them.”

Many of her patients come to her after trying more traditional approaches.

“Therapists often will just sit and talk and tell you to exercise,” says Baxter. “But if you are depressed, you are not going to do it.”

A typical session with Baxter includes 7-8 minutes of warming up on the treadmill, followed by balance ball exercises to work the abs and the upper and lower core muscles, and then some weight work before cooling down on the treadmill. All the while, patients talk to her about their problems.

It’s an empowering process, she says. “They feel strong while talking about their weaknesses.”

Your Brain on Exercise

According to Ratey, depression shuts down the brain’s ability to adapt to new situations by limiting the ability of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters (such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine) to foster communication throughout the brain.

“Not only is the [depressed] brain locked into a negative loop of self-hate,” he writes, “but it also loses the flexibility to work its way out of the hole.”

Exercise, Ratey says, counters that by boosting the production of BDNF (brain-developed neurotrophic factor), a protein that helps neurotransmitters perform their function, and which may help depressed people emerge from their rut. Ratey describes BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain."

To reduce depression, Ratey advises patients to follow general public health guidelines, which recommend at least 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise five days a week as well as two days of strength training each week.

However, not everyone will experience the antidepressant effects of exercise, Ratey cautions. He estimates that less than 50% will see a significant reduction in symptoms.

“That’s comparable to response rates for medications,” he says.

In Baxter’s practice, she finds that her patients respond better - they get a bigger mood boost - if they do exercises that require them to use their brain rather than let it run on auto pilot.

For example, a multistage exercise that requires you to lift a ball above your head then move into a forward lunge will get your brain working better than rote exercises like rowing or pedaling a stationary bike. 

Ratey agrees. “We know that a harder-working brain is a smarter brain -- probably a more hopeful and motivated brain, as well,” he says.

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