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If You’re Depressed, These Workouts Can Help

If You’re Depressed, These Workouts Can Help

  • Depression affects more than 16.1 million American adults every year. If you need to talk to someone, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or use the confidential chat option 24/7 on their website.
  • Studies suggest that exercise helps you feel better by triggering feel-good hormones, boosting your self-esteem, easing tension, and literally improving your brain function.
  • If pushups and squats aren’t your thing, that’s OK. You can benefit from any workout that gets your blood pumping and muscles moving.
  • Set a goal to work out for up to 20 minutes three times per week. Start small and do what you can. Below, you’ll find workout ideas to get started — even if you don’t want to leave the house.

When you’re dealing with depression, even something as small as getting out of the house feels like an impossible task. You’re not alone: Depression affects more than 16.1 million American adults every year.[1] Therapy helps. According to a growing body of research, exercise helps you feel better, too. The best part? You don’t have to spend hours in the gym to reap the benefits of weight training for mental health. Here’s what you should know, including five workouts to get started — even on days when you don’t want to get out of bed.

If you’re struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please talk to someone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also use the 24/7 confidential chat option on their website.

How exercise boosts your mental health

String sculpture of brain on blue wall

It’s time to reframe the way people think about wellness. It’s limiting to think that exercise is just a way to lose weight or build muscle. In reality, exercise supports your brain health, hormonal function, and self-esteem. It also improves your mood, which is why it’s an important part of any self-care routine, whether you’re depressed or not.

In fact, studies shows that exercise effectively reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic disorders.[2][3][4] Researchers don’t yet understand the antidepressant effects of exercise, and it’s tough to pin down specific answers because mood disorders as a whole have many different causes. Here’s what researchers do know: According to a 2018 review of over 33 randomized clinical trials, resistance training significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults, regardless of how much weight they lifted or how much strength they gained.[5]

That’s a big deal because the term “resistance training” is super broad — it can define workouts that use equipment like exercise machines, resistance bands, free weights, or even your own body weight. Based on the review, any workout that improves muscular strength and endurance can ease symptoms of depression. Those symptoms include anxiety, poor sleep, fatigue, and low self-esteem.[6]

Related: For Better Sleep, Upgrade Your Exercise Routine

If pushups and planks aren’t your thing, that’s OK, too. A seminal study on aerobic exercise and depression found that moderate cardio — just 30 minutes, three days a week — worked as well as antidepressants in staving off symptoms, and was more effective than drugs at preventing relapses.[7]

Benefits of exercise for depression

Blue constellations on purple and red background

Here are a few prevailing theories to explain how working out helps your mental health:[8]  

  • It releases feel-good hormones: Exercise releases endorphins, hormones that improve your mood and contribute to a positive sense of well-being. Endorphins even help relieve pain, which often accompanies depression. [9][10][11]
  • It modulates important neurotransmitters: Depression diminishes the neurotransmitters associated with mood and stress response (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine). Exercise increases the availability of these essential neurotransmitters, which may restore healthy brain function and help you feel better.[12][13]
  • It boosts your self-esteem: Depression contributes to negative thoughts and feelings of low self-worth. However, exercise has been shown to enhance self-efficacy — your belief in yourself and your abilities.[14]
  • It’s relaxing: Raising your core body temperature through exercise may reduce muscular tension and make you feel relaxed, which alleviates symptoms of anxiety and stress.[15]

These findings supports decades of other research that establish exercise as an effective treatment option for mood disorders. That’s great news for people who are seeking ways to boost their mood with or without prescription medication. Approximately 322 million people live with depression worldwide, but not everyone has easy access to a doctor.[16] While exercise alone may not cure depression, it can help you feel better.

Related: How to Fight Depression Without Medication

5 mood-boosting workouts you can do anywhere

Woman stretching by window

Ready to take charge of your mental health? Your goal is to exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day, three times per week.[17] Start slowly and pick a form of exercise you enjoy. Even just 10 minutes of physical activity can make a difference. And, yes, brisk walking counts.

It’s a good idea to keep track of your workouts to monitor what you’re doing and the way you feel on days you work out. Set small, achievable goals, like trying a new workout or exercising for at least 10 minutes. These are great goals to share with a therapist or a close friend.

Research suggests the most effective, mood-boosting exercises target your large muscle groups and work your body at moderate intensity. [18] However, that’s not always feasible when you’re dealing with depression, and that’s totally fine. Below, you’ll find a mix of workout ideas to stretch your muscles and get your blood flowing.

1. 7-minute yoga routine

Don’t want to get out of bed or off the couch? Follow this soothing bedtime routine to unwind and relax. Stretching, focusing on your breathing, and being mindful about your movements can help you clear your mind and find happiness.

2. Simple resistance workout

Man doing pushup on wood floor

This is weight-bearing workout hits every major muscle group. You can do it with a dumbbell, kettlebell, barbell, or exercise machine.

Do 10 reps of each exercise with a rest in between. Repeat this circuit up to four times.

  • Push-ups
  • Squats
  • Pull-ups
  • Deadlifts

This workout comes straight from the Bulletproof Exercise Roadmap. Click here to download the illustrated guide, plus a bunch of other free resources.

3. The “Big 5” workout

Perform one set of each move. Take each set to muscular failure (that’s gym talk for until you can’t do anymore).

  • Seated Row
  • Chest Press
  • Pull Down
  • Overhead Press
  • Leg Press

The Big 5 workout appears in “The Bulletproof Diet” for a reason: It’s an effective way to build muscle without spending tons of time at the gym. The video above explains the workouts, and you can follow the workouts here. Listen to an interview with the creator of the “Big 5” workout, Doug McGuff, MD, on this episode of the Bulletproof Radio podcast.

4. No-equipment bodyweight workout

Woman doing burpees in field

Repeat this circuit 10 times:

  • 30 seconds burpees
  • 30 seconds walking in place

Burpees are a full-body workout that hit multiple muscle groups. They’re also great for cardio, and the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) structure of this workout will give your energy a boost. Learn more about the benefits of HIIT.

Not sure how to do a burpee? Check out this video:

5. Full-body HIIT workout

Woman doing bodyweight squat

Do each exercise for 60 seconds. In between each workout, walk in place for 30 seconds.

  • Jog in place
  • Walk in place
  • Bodyweight squats
  • Walk in place
  • Push-ups
  • Walk in place
  • High jumps
  • Walk in place
  • Sit-ups
  • Walk in place
  • Burpees
  • Walk in place

Exercise is a great way to boost your mood and help relieve symptoms of depression. But remember that it’s OK to reach out and talk to someone if you feel like you need a helping hand. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or use the 24/7 confidential chat option on their website.

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