When your mood is low, the last thing you feel like doing is going for a run – but research shows that may be the best remedy. Study after study reveals that, as well as improving your heart and lung health, and keeping you in shape, running boosts the feel-good chemicals in your brain. This can improve your self-esteem and help you stave off or manage depression, and the effect is instant.
“Depression is such a complex and widespread condition,” says Emer O’Neill, former chief executive of the Depression Alliance (now merged with Mind UK). “The stigma is lifting, but the number of people with the condition is on the rise. There is no single magic solution. However, all the research and anecdotal evidence shows that exercise is a vital part of a complex jigsaw of treatments. Along with a healthy diet, social support and counselling, it’s part of a spectrum of non-drug interventions that can really help.”
Running increases beta-endorphin (a natural opiate) in the brain, as well as serotonin and norepinephrine – neurotransmitters that affect mood regulation. Drug antidepressants also boost levels of the same chemicals, which gives a clue as to why exercise can be such an effective treatment.
Chartered Psychologist and Registered Psychologist Dr Barry Cripps says running has a positive physiological effect on the brain. “Exercise can increase feelings of wellbeing, due to the endorphin effect,” he says.
Indeed, a report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that adults who did 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to five times a week had reduced depressive symptoms by almost 50 per cent. Analysis of 80 studies by psychologist Dr Penny McCullagh found that exercise was a beneficial antidepressant both immediately and in the long term. It is most effective in those who are less physically fit to start with; the older the people were, the greater their decrease in depression; and the more they exercised, the greater the effect. The analysis also showed the most powerful antidepressant effect occurred when exercise was combined with psychotherapy.
Any exercise that raises your heart rate can help with depression, but running is one of the quickest and easiest ways to increase your heart rate and keep it constantly pumping for the required 30 minutes. Dr Cripps says exercise can leave depressed people feeling a lot better than talking therapies, such as psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy. “However, the effect may be short-lived, which is why exercise needs to be part of a regular routine of at least three half-hour sessions, three times a week,” he says, ideally combining exercise with counselling. For those with more severe symptoms, exercise may need to be used in combination with antidepressant drugs.
Dr Cripps says the social element and self-esteem boost from running are crucial in easing low mood, because research shows that feeling socially supported is another weapon in the fight against depression. So, to maximise the feel-good effect of running, join a club, or train with friends or family. “Meeting and talking to other people can raise your spirits and help ease depression, so this may be an important element of how exercise can help,” says Dr Cripps.
Running outdoors in the park or countryside, rather than in a gym, is best if you can – the natural sunlight and interaction with nature can also help you feel better. O’Neill thinks this is a particularly good approach if you suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – where lack of light triggers a low mood.
“Exercise is highly effective for people with mild depression,” says O’Neill. “While it’s the last thing you probably want to do, it’s one of the best solutions, so even if you can only run or fast walk for a few steps, try it. Make a start and gradually build towards feeling better.
O’Neill states that running won’t lift you out of a deep depression – and you definitely need to see your GP if you feel you are suffering from the condition – but it will help you recover. And you don’t have to run a marathon to feel the positive effects – a gentle 30 minutes to increase your heart rate will do it.
“Running is the most positive approach you can take to dealing with depression, as I know through experience,” says Shona Campbell, a running coach who helps women combat depression through exercise. “Start slowly – five minutes is better than nothing. If you’re a beginner, try running for a minute, walk for a few seconds, run for another minute and gradually build up. Keep it regular, but be realistic. Dig out your running clothes the night before you exercise. When you wake up, put them on and keep them on until you’ve been for a run!’
If you think you may be suffering from depression, visit your GP as a matter of priority. For further information on mental health and to find out about Mental Health Awareness Week, taking place this week, visit the Mental Health Foundation website.