Have you ever come in from a walk (or walked out of a Pilates class) feeling a heck of a lot better than before you exercised? You’re not alone! That’s because exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain and mental health. Which is really good news because according to the BBC, one in five adults experienced depression in early 2021 - more than double pre-pandemic levels.
While there are many ways to address depression, for some people, exercise can be as effective a treatment for depression as antidepressants! That’s because exercise physically changes the brain. Dr Miller, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Harvard, explains that “In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller.” Exercise – even as little as an hour of walking- spurs release of proteins neurotropic and growth factors which cause nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, and helps relieve depression” (1) … and increases the volume of the brain’s hippocampus. (2)
What kind of exercise, you ask?
While we have heard about a runner’s “high” from endorphins released during high intensity exercise, it's the low-intensity exercise sustained over time that appears to make the biggest difference. A study in Lancet of over 1 million Americans (!) concluded that it didn’t really matter a whole lot what you choose, as all exercises they studied were associated with fewer self-reported days of depression; the most important was that you did something consistently. (3).
How do you begin?
Sometimes starting is the hardest part, so give yourself 5 minutes the first day and 10 the next and before you know it, you’ll be walking for 45 minutes. And research suggests that even a little bit of exercise regularly may be enough.
How much is enough?
Studies vary but it seems that doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day 3-5 days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms (4). But smaller amounts of physical activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — may make a difference as well. The key is consistency so choosing something you like so you will keep doing it is critical. The most important thing is to get out there and move your body. Your brain will thank you!