Can exercising really help those who are feeling depressed? This question is something I have taken personal interest in. My friend was feeling depressed, and he asked me what he could do to try to be happier. We agreed that starting to exercise could take his mind off of his problems for a while. So he tried it. He started exercising daily, and it actually helped him through his depression. This made me wonder if the exercise was the factor that got him through his tough time, or if it was just a case of correlation not equaling causation.
There were multiple studies done on this subject. One study done in 1999 showed the effects that exercise can have on depression. This experiment took 156 men and women, separated them into three groups, and gave one group antidepressants. They made another group exercise daily, and they gave the last group antidepressants and made them exercise. The results showed that exercise did help the patients reduce depression levels. The antidepressants worked faster and very slightly more, but the exercise-only group showed significant benefits as well. Months after the experiment, the patients who continued to exercise had a lower relapse rate than those who did not exercise.
There are some theories that go along with these results. Some scientists believe exercise helps with depression because exercising makes you release endorphins which coincide with a positive mood. Some people believe it is because exercising causes your body to heat up and increased temperatures in certain parts of the brain cause you to relax. Another theory is that exercising distracts you from the cause of your depression. This is the thought process my friend and I had when we decided he should work out. Lastly, one theory is that exercising makes you more fit, which can cause you to be happier with your body, making you a happier person. Any of these theories could be true. Much of the brain and how it works is undiscovered. This is why it is hard to just cure something like depression.
As of right now, we do not know exactly why exercise helps with depression. We don’t know if exercise directly causes lower depression levels. It could be that a third variable is causing lower depression levels, but we think it is exercise due to the strong correlation. It could also be the classic case of chance causing the lower depression levels. We can, however, rule out reverse causation. We know that lower depression levels in the future could not cause the person to go back in the past and work out.
We know that exercising is strongly correlated with lower depression levels, whether it equals causation or not. In my opinion, if you’re ever feeling depressed, try exercising pretty often for a while. The data shows that its worth a shot if you are a rational person.