I’ve struggled with depression for years. Most of the time I just felt flat. I had what doctors used to call dysthymia and now called Persistent Depressive Disorder. Twice I was so deeply depressed that I was suicidal. For years I didn’t trust myself to be around guns and refused to let my husband have a handgun in the house. Talk therapy didn’t always help. For a very short time in the 1990s, I was on a mild antidepressant.
Eventually I decided I didn’t want to be on any medication. It was about this time that I started working out fairly often and once I hit 50, it became a regular habit. It was when I joined and attended regularly a boot camp class that met three times a week that I found exercise was better than any antidepressant for me. Now, I can’t go a day without some sort of exercise or a run to rev up my endorphins.
Once I started exercising regularly, I learned it was feel-good endorphins my brain produced that was making me happier.
According to an article by Leo Widrich, here’s what happens when we exercise:
If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease and like things are clear after exercising.
At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, are released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose are this, writes researcher MK McGovern:
“These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain, and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.”
So, BDNF and endorphins are the reasons exercise makes us feel so good. The somewhat scary part is that they have a very similar and addictive behavior like morphine, heroin, or nicotine. The only difference? Well, it’s actually good for us.
Admittedly some forms of depression and other mental illnesses can’t be managed by just exercising. But even if you are on medication, I encourage you to get some form of exercise, even if it’s just a daily walk. The benefits are just too many to discount.