The silhouette of a person running on the beach at sunset.

Exercise May Have Dual Benefits for Those with Depression

By Jessica Hicks
October 12, 2021

If you've ever experienced the overwhelming sense that you could accomplish anything after finishing a workout, or a “runner’s high” after completing that last mile, you are familiar with the boost that comes from physical activity. And many studies have outlined how physical activity can benefit our brains and bodies. Exercise releases endorphins that lift mood and promote relaxation, no matter your age, background, physical or mental health. Now, research suggests that a healthy bout of movement may be especially beneficial for those struggling with depression.

Psychiatry and psychotherapy researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany studied a group of 41 people who were undergoing treatment for depression at a hospital. Study participants were split into two groups: One completed a three-week exercise program with an emphasis on fun and teamwork, rather than competition. "This specifically promoted motivation and social togetherness while breaking down a fear of challenges and negative experiences with physical activity—such as from school P.E. lessons," Karin Rosenkranz, Ph.D., a study author, told ScienceDaily. The other group participated in a control program that did not involve physical activity.

After the three weeks, Rosenkranz and the team found that those who participated in regular exercise reaped dual benefits. Not only did they experience decreased depressive symptoms, but also increased neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change its structure and function. This is often lower in people who have depression, which can have a negative impact on learning, memory, and emotion regulation, among other side effects.

Additional research has shown that depression inhibits neuroplasticity, and lower neuroplasticity can contribute to the development of depression—a vicious cycle that can require a lot of time, energy, and treatment to break.

Luckily, a burst of movement can have a positive effect on brain health. And even though exercising while coping with depression is easier said than done, it’s worth noting that even the smallest steps add up. Going out for a brief yet brisk walk, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or doing a five-minute yoga or stretch routine at home are all simple yet effective ways to get your move on (and give your brain a boost, too).

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