We all get the blues sometimes. But we don’t have to settle into a funk or let it get worse. It turns out that exercising for a relatively short period of time most days of the week can not only lift our mood but help prevent depression.
A recent study published in the JAMA Network Open journal found that doing 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity, like brisk walking five days a week, can reduce the risk of depression symptoms. The research found that this short dose of exercise lowered the risk of depression symptoms by 16 percent, and major depression by 43 percent.
Depression symptoms include difficulty concentrating, loss of energy, weight gain or loss and insomnia. In Black women, symptoms may also involve irritability or feeling unattractive.
“Exercise does appear to be protective for the development of depression,” says Karmel Choi, a clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Though Dr. Choi was not involved in the most recent study, she has conducted her own research on the link between physical activity and depression.
There may be multiple reasons why exercise benefits mood, says Dr. Choi. “It’s well-known that exercise is associated with the release of endorphins, the feel-good hormones.” And physical activity can also give people a sense of mastery or accomplishment that’s a mood-booster too, she notes.
Many Ways to Get the Mood Benefits of Exercise
Break it down. Research has found that when it comes to exercise and mood, a little can go a long way. If your schedule doesn’t allow you to get a full 20 minutes in one chunk of time, do two 10-minute bouts or four five-minute bursts of activity. It’s called “activity snacking,” says Dr. Choi. Do some squats or jumping jacks while you’re waiting for your morning coffee to drip, followed by a walk during your lunch hour or after dinner. Take the stairs at work. To make sure your activity is vigorous enough, minimize resting time between sets; when brisk walking you should be able to talk but not sing.
Try different activities. Walking or jogging in your neighborhood or on a treadmill is a simple way to get in your workouts, but it’s not the only way. Bicycling, hiking, swimming, taking an exercise class, lifting weights or doing yoga count, too. Try something new like pickleball. As long as it gets you moving intentionally most days of the week, your mood will benefit.
Chores can count. Moderate to vigorous activity can include things you need to do during the week anyway, such as mowing the lawn or raking leaves. Does your garage or basement need cleaning out? Do you have a pile of books or clothes to organize and give away? Don’t procrastinate; instead, turn these tasks into ways to get moving.
Bring a friend or two. Whatever activity you choose, planning to do it with a friend or group can help keep you accountable. Enlist a sistafriend to try a dance class with you, for example, or join an organized activity group like GirlTrek. You’ll also gain from the mood-enhancing benefits of social connection, says Dr. Choi.
More is more. While 20 minutes of exercise is enough, longer routines bring even greater reduced risk of depression. When you have extra time on weekends, or if you can get up just 10 minutes earlier during the week, extend your physical activity time. What matters is that you exercise regularly, whether that’s hopping on an exercise machine or gardening. “Choosing something that is enjoyable, realistic, doable, within the constraints of your own schedule and lifestyle is the way to go,” says Dr. Choi.