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Exercise as a Treatment for Depression


It has been said that exercise can have positive effects on all types of psychological functions. Exercise has been shown to increase self-esteem and act as a major stress management tool. Exercise can also alleviate anxiety and improve sleep. With steady and shocking increase in the number of Americans using anti-depressant drugs, perhaps we should take a look at a different avenue to assist in managing depression.

In the brain, there are chemicals called neurotransmitters which send messages throughout the body. Neurotransmitters are sent from one neuron (a nerve cell in the brain) to another neuron by means of crossing the synapse (space between the neurons). Neurotransmitters fit into their receptors located on neurons in the brain like a key fits into a lock. It has been said that depression is caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. However, it is not only the quantity of these chemicals present in the brain that causes depression. The time the neurotransmitters spend in the synapse can also lead to depression and other psychological diagnoses. Dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters associated with depression (the other two being serotonin and norepinepherine), is responsible for regulating our drive to seek rewards and obtain a sense of pleasure.

Exercise (along with excitement, pain, consumption of spicy foods, love and orgasm) causes the brain to release endorphins, defined as endogenous opioid peptides which function as neurotransmitters. Endorphins resemble opiates in the way they are able to produce analgesia and a feeling of well-being. Certain receptors for endorphins are considered presynaptic, and inhibit some neurotransmitter release, namely the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. These presynaptic receptors also disinhibit dopamine pathways, causing more dopamine to be released in the brain.

It is for this reason that many individuals get a “runner’s high” or feel euphoric after a good, long workout. These feelings are absolutely good and can instantly improve one’s mood and overall feeling of wellness. For individuals feeling no motivation (due to depression) to exercise, the good news is simple activities will help release endorphins and thus pick up your mood. Activities like gardening and sweeping the floor are considered to be moderate enough to jumpstart the release of endorphins without feeling like a major workout. Other exercises that are great in promoting endorphin release to aid in treatment of depression include biking, jogging (at a moderate pace), dancing, swimming and yoga.

If you’re feeling the blues, try going for a walk around the neighborhood to enjoy some fresh air and some endorphins, or just clean your kitchen. You’ll feel better almost instantly!