Does hitting the gym help beat the blues?

Does hitting the gym help beat the blues?

As the days get shorter many of us may sense the gloomy mist of depression lingering over us. Before it gets a grip, commit to some regular exercise at the gym or outdoors and shake the blues away.

The latest research suggests that exercise may help ease the symptoms of depression. The Cochrane review published last week concluded that although exercise couldn’t be expected to cure depression it definitely has a ‘moderately beneficial’ effect, and will certainly help you feel better about yourself. This is good news for many patients suffering from depression who would prefer not to take medication.

So how do you know if you’re depressed, or just feeling sad? Tell tale signs include difficulty sleeping, poor self-esteem, persistent sadness, avoiding other people, tiredness and feelings of hopelessness. But whether you’re moderately depressed or just feeling temporarily low, there is no doubt that exercise has a positive effect on mood.

Exercise is recommended for feelings of depression for two reasons – endorphins and feel-good factor.


Endorphins are chemicals produced by the pituitary gland. Naturally occurring pain relievers, they create a soothing effect which is highly pleasant, and can even be addictive. As depression is a chemical disorder, the boosting of serotonin and dopamine levels can help to rebalance your brain chemicals.

The catch is that you need to work hard to trigger their release.

Much has been written about the ‘endorphin rush’ after exercise. Ever wondered why you haven’t experienced it, or have you? (Let us know!) Research shows light-to-moderate exercise doesn’t produce endorphins. Only strenuous training which incorporates some anaerobic exertion will work. Dr Karasu, who was involved in the Cochrane review agreed that exercise “wouldn't be expected to relieve depression unless it is done at a level to generate endorphins, which means running at a speed of 6.5 to 6.7 miles per hour for at least 10 minutes."

Anecdotal evidence lies well with this as most people who experience the ‘runners high’ seem to do so after longer stints (30 – 60 minutes) of intense exercise. Of course, endorphin release varies from person to person, and some lucky ones may find 10 minutes of moderate exercise does the trick or you may find you don’t need to exercise vigorously to feel the benefits.

It’s certainly worth a try. Your local gym will be happy to tailor you a workout which includes plenty of anaerobic activity. The treadmill is a good place to begin. Weightlifting can also do wonders for endorphin release with deadlifts, leg press and bench press all popular choices.

It’s worth bearing in mind that not all previous research has been so positive about the benefits exercise has on depression. For example, a large university study published in the BMJ in 2012 concluded that ‘exercise did not appear to be effective at treating depression’. 

However, being told to exercise for a study is very different from personally choosing to do it yourself. The actual act of deciding to workout is very empowering, and this in itself provides a self-confidence boost and that all-important feel good factor.  

Feel good factor

Irrespective of scientific research, there is plenty of strong anecdotal opinion, whether in online forums, Twitter, Facebook or just talking to friends, that exercise provides psychological benefits to many people. GPs are also handing out prescriptions to patients to attend leisure centres to get active. Even if getting sweaty in a gym isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, who doesn’t feel better after simply getting outside for a walk outdoors?

Exercising regularly also helps to reduce stress, which can cause depression. Choose an exercise you find enjoyable, and if you’re bored then try something new. Fancy a spinning class? Research show that a 30 minute session of stationary cycling creates changes in the ‘energy’ areas of subject’s brains. Aim to stick to a routine and set yourself small targets and this will help boost your self-esteem.

The hardest part about feeling gloomy is actually getting yourself to the gym. Find out if you’re just making excuses, or perhaps use a little inspiration. If you are severely depressed you may not even be able to get out of bed, or recoil at the thought of mingling with lots of strangers, but most people find the initial effort of getting up and out is never regretted. If you are really struggling see your doctor, and consider phoning your gym and speaking to an instructor who could suggest some options to help you.

Once there, simply being in a gym environment can lift you out of a gloomy state. The social, energetic atmosphere is a powerful antidote to being all wrapped in your own problems and feelings

Finally, remember that while exercise by itself is very effective for staving off depression, your best approach is manifold.  The combination of a good diet, plenty of sleep and good workouts is the strongest way to beat the blues. 


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