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Getting Started: Exercise for Depression

By Ellen Greenlaw
WebMD Feature

If you’re feeling depressed, it can be difficult to get yourself off the couch, much less exercise. But exercise may be one of the best things you can do for your depression. Physical activity can make you feel better, improve your mood, and help you sleep better.

Many studies have shown the benefits of exercise for people of all ages who have depression. And some studies show that exercising can be just as effective in treating depression as taking medication.

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Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to help ease depression. Any type of activity you can do is likely to boost your mood and increase your energy level. So whether you walk around the block, go for a run, or join a yoga or dance class, chances are exercise will make you feel better.

Here are six tips for exercises to help with depression.

1: Find a Small Exercise Goal That Is Attainable While You’re Depressed

If while feeling depressed, the most you can do is take a short walk, start there. The next day, try to do a little more and build on that. For some people with depression, the first step is joining a class or exercise group. Whatever exercise you do, the important thing is that you do it every day and stick with it.

“My depression used to be really bad in the morning,” says Lisa Brennan, who has had bouts of depression since her teen years. “But if I could manage to get to my yoga class first thing in the morning, it changed the direction of my whole day. When things were really bad, that class kept me going.”

2: Go for Exercises That Offer Social Support

“Having social support for exercise is crucial when you’re depressed,” says Keith Johnsgard, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at San Jose State University and author of Conquering Depression & Anxiety through Exercise. “A lot of folks won’t exercise on their own, so I tell patients to enlist a family member or good friend to be their exercise partner. It should be someone who is willing to help them get out of the house and exercise every day.”

Another option is to join a class or exercise group or hire a personal trainer. Being accountable to a teacher or friend is what keeps some people with depression going.

3: Find an Exercise or Workout That You Enjoy

If you don’t like a type of exercise, chances are you’re not going to do it, whether or not you’re depressed. But if you enjoy what you’re doing -- whether it’s tai chi, bicycling, or walking -- you’ll be more likely to stick with it over time.

If you haven’t found the perfect exercise yet, don’t give up. “I just kept trying different types of exercise classes until I found one that I liked,” Brennan says. “I also really like walking with my dog, so that’s something I can do every day.”

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