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How to Use Exercise to Manage Depression

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Saundra Jain, MA, PsyD, LPC - Blogs
By Saundra Jain, MA, LPC, PsyDPsychotherapistApril 4, 2017
From the WebMD Archives

If you’re dealing with depression and have been disappointed to find that antidepressants aren’t as effective as you’d hoped, you’re not alone. While antidepressants are very effective for many people, for others, medication just isn’t enough to win the battle against depression.

Thankfully, there are many non-drug strategies that are quite effective – like meditation, sleep hygiene, enhanced social connectedness, and optimized nutrition. One of the most effective alternative strategies is physical exercise. Numerous studies have shown exercise to be successful  in treating mild to moderate depression.

Of course, just knowing that exercise helps isn’t enough – you need to know how to take action. My own doctor urges me to exercise to better manage my type 1 diabetes, but he doesn’t tell me the specifics – what kind of exercise, how often, and how much. What I need, and what probably most of us need, is an exercise prescription.

So, here are some specific recommendations regarding exercise for general health and specifically for depression:

  • For general health: minimum 30 minutes a day, at least moderate intensity, 5 or more days a week. This can be one 30-minute session or several shorter bouts of activity, lasting 10-minutes or more.
  • For depression: 14 miles of walking per week. Don’t be scared off by 14 miles per week as this equals 30 minutes of brisk walking per day, which breaks down to 2 miles per day @ 4 miles/hour.

I use something in my practice and personal life that you may find helpful. I call it FID – “To be FIT you must FID!”  FID stands for frequency, intensity, and duration.

  • Frequency – 5 or more days a week
  • Intensity – at least moderate
  • Duration – 30 minutes (remember, it’s OK to break it down into smaller chunks of time)

For some of you, this exercise prescription may seem too challenging. If that’s the case, I’d recommend starting with a smaller goal of walking 5-10 minutes each day. It may not seem like much, but really, it’s a great start. As you build up your endurance, add a minute or two every couple of days until you reach the goal of walking 2 miles per day. What’s most important is to make a commitment to exercise regularly. There will be days when you don’t feel like exercising, and it’s especially important to honor your commitment on those days.

I’d suggest finding a workout buddy, put your exercise schedule on your calendar, and set reminder alerts using your smartphone. Don’t stop there – create a daily tracking form and document your exercise practices. Keep these logs and refer to them to see how you’ve done over the last week or the last month. Use this information to identify any barriers you’ve encountered. Brainstorm with your workout buddy and find ways to solve these barriers.

Remember, your mental health is at stake. Don’t overlook one of the most effective strategies in the fight against depression. Whether you use exercise as a stand-alone strategy, or you use it as an add-on to antidepressants, grab your tennis shoes and get exercising!

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About the Author
Saundra Jain, MA, LPC, PsyD

Saundra Jain, MA, PsyD, LPC, is a psychotherapist and Adjunct Clinical Affiliate of the School of Nursing at The University of Texas at Austin. She maintains a private practice focused on both wellness and a variety of mental health disorders. She is recognized both nationally and internationally for her work in wellness. Dr. Jain's most recent publication is a workbook entitled WILD 5 Wellness Ancient Practices for Modern Times: A Prescriptive & Proven 90-Day Mental Wellness Program.

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