Many people who have never experienced depression or anxiety may now find themselves struggling with how to cope with all of the uncertainty, fear, and stress that the global Covid-19 pandemic has brought into their lives. The precautions needed right now to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus, such as social distancing and cancellations of school, college, church, and other regular life events, have caused isolation and loneliness, which fuel depression. Add to that the anxiety that comes with worrying about you or your family contracting Covid-19, job loss or changes, financial difficulties, and having to help young children at home with online school, living in this age of coronavirus can have a significant effect on your mood.
During this difficult time, you may be tempted to rely on unhealthy ways of coping such as overeating, drinking, or obsessively reading or watching news coverage on social media or TV. While these things may make you feel better for a short time, in the long run, they’ll only make depression and anxiety worse. There are better ways to boost your mood and help alleviate depression, even during this challenging time, and one of the best ways is through exercise.
The link between exercise and mood
It is not completely understood exactly why exercise improves mood conditions, but experts do know that it works. Most experts believe it is due to a number of reasons or a combination of factors:
- Exercise increases serotonin (the chemical in the brain that helps regulate mood, sleep, and appetite), and an increase in serotonin helps to combat depression. This is the same way antidepressants help with depression.
- Exercise increases endorphins, which are natural mood enhancers.
- Exercise helps regulate sleep. Getting enough good quality sleep helps to protect the brain from negative changes or damage, and helps limit the effect of stress.
- Exercise can give you a feeling of accomplishment, which naturally boosts mood.
While researchers may not fully understand the reasons why exercise can help treat depression, they do know there is a direct link between exercise and mood. For example, studies have shown that people who exercise regularly report fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who don’t exercise.
Exercise can be just as effective as taking antidepressant medications and can often be used as the sole treatment for mild-to-moderate depression. In one study, older adults who participated in exercise for 16 weeks (and who had not been exercising previously) had the same positive benefits and outcomes on their moods as being treated with an antidepressant medication. Exercise can also be used to help treat depression in individuals who have only had a partial response to antidepressant medications: adding exercise can often help them get even better.
Get up and get moving!
When you’re feeling low, exercise may be the very last thing you want to do, but it’s one of the most effective ways to boost your mood. You don’t need to spend hours sweating in a gym to get the benefits either; even as little as 30 minutes a day of walking outdoors can boost your mood (and the bonus of exercising outdoors and getting sunlight can also positively affect your mood).
When using exercise to help with depression, both aerobic and strength training exercises can be beneficial. The type of exercise does not matter as much as consistency and frequency. You may think of exercise as a planned or structured activity, such as a group fitness class at a gym or running laps, but any physical activity that gets you moving can improve your mood and help you feel better. Activities such as walking, gardening, playing with your kids outside, or any other activity that gets you off the sofa can boost your mood.
You also don’t have to do an activity all at once. Even short intervals of physical activity for 10-15 minutes each several times a day can have a positive effect on how you feel. Try to work up to 30 minutes or more of activity, three to five times per week, and you may see a significant improvement in anxiety and depression symptoms. The key is to find something that you enjoy that you will be more likely to stick with long-term, so you can reap the most benefits both physically and mentally.