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Exercise for Depression: How It Helps

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

Your Brain on Exercise continued...

“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.

And a more hopeful and motivated brain is just what Anita needed in order for her to begin making her way out of her depression.

“I think the workout/therapy sessions helped me move through times of being stuck or anxious more quickly,” Anita says. “I took up running on my own, and I credit the gentle but consistent talk/workout sessions with helping me reach this goal of health and fitness.”

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Reviewed on February 16, 2012

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