How Exercise and 5 Alternative Therapies Can Combat Depression
It may sound strange, but exercise can be as effective as medication for relieving mild to moderate depression. In fact, research shows that mild depression isn’t typically responsive to medication. One recent study showed that antidepressants improved symptoms in only about 40 - 60 out of 100 people who took them over an eight-week period.
Further research shows that while exercise alone isn’t always enough for people with severe depression, it often works as well or better than antidepressants for those with mild to moderate depression. Plus, the mood-boosting effects of exercise can last longer than antidepressants. Read on to find out how including exercise in your treatment plan, along with one or two other alternative therapies or strategies, can combat depression.
A Closer Look at Exercise for Depression
Someone who is too depressed to drag themselves out of the bed in the morning to face the day probably doesn’t want to face getting up to exercise, but hear us out!
Data gathered by Harvard University researchers in a review of studies on different depression therapies over the past 30 years revealed that regular exercise improves mood in people with mild to moderate depression and also augments medication treatment for people with severe depression.
While athletes and runners can experience a “runner’s high” from endorphins that are released during high-intensity exercise, people with depression can experience a mood boost when proteins called growth factors are released during sustained lower-intensity exercise. According to Michael Craig Miller, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, moderate exercise activates nerve cell growth and nerve connections in the hippocampus, the region of the brain that helps regulate mood. Dr. Miller explains that because people who are depressed have reduced activity in the hippocampus region, it makes sense that stimulating brain activity and boosting the release of growth factors in the hippocampus through physical exercise helps relieve depression.
Exercise: Just What the Doctor Ordered
If your doctor recommends that you work out more often to improve your mood, there is more than one reason why. In addition to stimulating your brain and releasing endorphins, regular exercise can be a healthy coping tool for difficult feelings. Rather than dwelling on your sadness or hoping negative thoughts and feelings will go away on their own, pushing yourself to exercise is a positive way to proactively manage your symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise further helps treat depression by taking your mind off your worries and breaking negative thought cycles, while also boosting your self-confidence.
Even a 15-minute walk around the neighborhood can help; but it appears that 30 minutes of more vigorous exercise like running, hiking or bicycling done three to five times per week produces more noticeable mood-boosting benefits. If you choose exercise types that improve the body-mind connection through focused concentration and breathing while you move (yoga, pilates, tai chi, dance, etc.), you’ll be more likely to experience a lift. The cross-lateral body moves used in these activities also relieve stress by disengaging your right-brain, the brain hemisphere that hangs onto worries, anxieties and sadness.
For people with severe depression, or for the estimated 30% of people who don’t receive benefits from antidepressants and related medications (or those who don’t wish to rely on medication as their main option), exercise isn’t the only alternative therapy that can lift your mood. You may want to add a second or third complementary remedy to your depression-busting regimen.
Here are five other alternative therapies or strategies that have been shown to relieve depression and related symptoms.
1. Weighted Blankets
Do you sleep better and feel calmer and more comforted when you sleep under layers of heavy quilts? There is a reason for that, and it isn’t just the added warmth on a cold night. It is believed that the weight of the blankets reduces production of the stress hormone (cortisol) in your body, while also boosting production of serotonin, a hormone that gives you a sense of well-being. The discovery of these benefits has been confirmed by research studies, prompting many therapists to recommend weighted blankets to clients who suffer from depression and anxiety.
Weighted vests and blankets are used as calming tools for people with autism and ADHD, but others also benefit from the deeply grounding and soothing effects of weighted pressure. The therapeutic benefits of weighted blankets have been compared to the effects of deep-tissue massage that uses firm hand pressure to relieve tension. The specially made blankets are constructed using evenly distributed weighted materials of anywhere from five to 30 pounds, depending on your size. But how heavy should the blanket be for optimal soothing and stress-reduction benefits? Manufacturers recommend that adults choose a blanket that’s roughly 5% to 10% of their body weight—a 120- to 130-pound person would use a 12-pound blanket.
2. Narrative Therapy With Puppets
Playing with toys may seem like a strange thing for an adult to do during therapy sessions, but at least one study shows that puppet work can help people with depression give voice to buried feelings. According to art therapist Matthew Bernier, MCAT, an associate professor in the Graduate Art Therapy & Counseling Program at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, many adults find it easier to talk about difficult feelings with a puppet than with a person and most will go along with it. Bernier thakes puppet therapy a step further and combines it with art therapy, encouraging clients to make their own puppets. He says the creative process can make it easier to get in touch with anger, shame, guilt and other feelings that may underlie depression.
3. Emotional Support Animals
Owning a pet may not be part of your grand plan, but animal therapy is recognized as a strategy for relieving depression, anxiety and PTSD. Scientists say more research is needed to determine exactly how effective it is, but animal therapy is a growing trend that has furnished us with plenty of anecdotal evidence. Most people feel better after cuddling a fluffy pooch or just hanging out with a rabbit, horse or other therapy animal. Animal-assisted interventions have even been used to help people with autism and attention-deficit disorders.
4. Vitamin D
Even if a suntan isn’t your goal, spending time outdoors in the sun boosts your body’s natural ability to produce vitamin D, which improves your mood. Researchers have found that low levels of vitamin D correspond to depression. Many people in the U.S. are vitamin-D deficient—nearly 75% of Americans have a vitamin D deficiency because they spend too much time indoors or live in cooler climates that make it hard to get outside. You may be tempted to head for a tanning salon to boost your vitamin D, but unfortunately, tanning beds don’t deliver the right kind of light for vitamin D production. Further, the sunscreen we use to prevent skin cancer blocks the vitamin-D boosting effects of the sun. However, studies show that taking vitamin D supplements can correct a vitamin D deficiency and provide depression relief. Ask your doctor about testing your vitamin levels and which dosage might improve your symptoms.
Known scientifically as S-adenosyl methionine, ademetionine or SAMe, SAM-e is sold as a prescription drug in Europe and as an over-the-counter supplement in the U.S. It is a molecular compound produced naturally in our bodies to support body function, but studies show that taking additional SAM-e via oral supplements can help relieve depression, as well as pain associated with osteoarthritis and other conditions. Some studies have used between 400-1,600 milligrams daily to alleviate depression for participants who were not responding to traditional antidepressants alone. In a Harvard Medical School study, 36% of patients taking a combination of SAM-e and an antidepressant showed improvement after six weeks.
Although there have been numerous studies on depression, researchers still don’t fully understand the pathways of depression in the brain, why some medications work better than others, or why sometimes alternative therapies and exercise can help when nothing else does.
Even if you feel like you have no fight left in you and it takes a herculean effort to pick yourself up and get yourself moving, that very effort may be the most important step you can take in breaking a negative mood cycle or staving off a depression relapse. You might speak with your doctor about changing your medication, but while you’re at it, discuss how exercise and some of these other alternative approaches can help you manage depression.
Also consider making a few lifestyle changes to reduce daily stressors that can exacerbate your depression. For example, if the daily solo commute to work aggravates you, carpool with a friend or colleague. Or if you feel like you can’t share your daily frustrations with anyone, write in a journal before bed each night to express how you feel about the challenges you face.
Depression: How Effective Are Antidepressants? – PubMed Health, January 2017.
Why Your Antidepressants Stopped Working–and What to Do About It – U.S. News & World Report, May 2015.
Exercise Is An All-Natural Treatment To Fight Depression – Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing, August 2013.
Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms – Mayo Clinic, September 2017.
Why You Should Use a Weighted Blanket for Anxiety – Healthline, April 2017. https://www.healthline.com/health/weighted-blanket-for-anxiety#benefits2
Weighted Blanket Can Help More Than Just Sleep Problems – Forbes, April 2014.
Narrative therapy for adults with major depressive disorder: improved symptom and interpersonal outcomes -Psychotherapy Research, January 2011.
Effects of Interactions with Animals on Human Psychological Distress – Journal of Clinical Psychology, November 2016.
Associations between Vitamin D Levels and Depressive Symptoms in Healthy Young Adult Women – Psychiatry Research, May 2015.
A New Study Shows Vitamin D May Help With Pain and Depression In Women With Type 2 Diabetes – Vitamin D Council, December 2013.
S-Adenosyl Methionine (SAMe) Augmentation of Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors for Antidepressant Nonresponders With Major Depressive Disorder: A Double-Blind, Randomized Clinical Trial – American Journal of Psychiatry, August 2010.
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