Recent research suggests that it doesn’t really matter what kind of exercise you’re doing - and that as little as an hour a week can lessen the symptoms of depression and help to prevent further depressive episodes. There’s also significant research which shows that for most depression, exercise is about as effective as therapy and medication. When I’ve had particularly low periods, I’ve often fallen out of the habit of exercising and as soon as I’ve forced myself to get back on it, I have felt happier. Everyone dreads going to the gym for the first time when you’ve not been for ages and you’ve been overdoing it on the Jaffa cakes, but I guarantee you, you’ll feel better for having gone.
Exercise reduces the levels of stress hormones - adrenaline and cortisol - in the body. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators.
It can help you to be in the present - so you can get away from the negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety.
Exercise can also help you gain self-confidence - either through meeting exercise goals and challenges, or by getting into better shape.
It’s a great way to meet people and socialise. Just having a chat with someone at your exercise class can improve your mood.
Start small. If getting out the house is a struggle, don’t make your life harder by choosing something hardcore. Start with something small - better something small than nothing big.
Choose something you enjoy. You’re much more likely to stick to it if it’s something you actually want to do.
Make it social. You’re more likely to stick at it if you go with a friend, plus meeting people and socialising might improve your mood.
Go for a walk – the combination of getting outside and moderate exercise is a great way to get started if you haven’t done any exercise for a while.
Find a fitness buddy – it’s so much more motivating to exercise with someone who has similar fitness goals to yours – use sites like Sport Partner or Meet Up or Get Motivated Buddies, or just twist a friend’s arm (metaphorically speaking, we don’t advocate GBH)
Instead of going to a gym on your own, go to exercise classes where there is some sort of community – try something like Crossfit, Rabble or Swedercise classes or your nearest Zumba class. So much more fun than just sticking your headphones on in the gym and being on your own.
Download a fitness app and use it as an inexpensive way to start exercising - I’ve tried loads of different ones like Couch to 5K, Yoga Wake Up, Asana Rebel and 7 Minute Workout. Experiment and see which one works for you.
Hate going to the gym? Try one of these alternatives: Goodgym helps you do good while you’re getting fit, or try yoga moves to disco grooves with Disco Yoga, or jumping around at a trampoline park near you (here or here), or getting fit while enjoying the great outdoors with British Military Fitness or join a walking group near you. Alternatively, consider buying an exercise bike to do exercise at home (could be quite £££ but you may be able to find well-priced options on Ebay).
Depression and Anxiety: exercise eases symptoms, Mayo Clinic
Working off depression, Harvard Health Blog
How exercise can boost your brain function, The Conversation
Best workout and exercise apps, Marie Claire
How to look after your mental health using exercise, Mental Health Foundation
Felipe Schuch, et al., Physical Activity and Incident Depression: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies, American Journal of Psychiatry, July 2018. Large academic study which showed that being active for 150 minutes or more per week was linked to a clear reduction in risk for depression.