Exercise, Depression, and Your Heart



Depression Can Affect Your Overall Health

Recent studies show that depression is associated with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, irregular heart beats, and obesity. For these reasons, it increases risk for heart disease and heart attack. Researchers believe the link between depression and heart disease is related to the combination of inactivity, anxiety, insomnia, and poor diet in people who are depressed.

Signs of Sadness

Depression is defined as a temporary or chronic mental state that is characterized by feelings of loneliness, sadness, low self-esteem, self-reproach, and despair. Warning signs for depression include social withdrawal, change in appetite (including overeating or loss of appetite), sleeplessness or sleeping too much, anxiety, loss of interest, and feelings of hopelessness. At its most severe, depression can trigger suicidal thoughts and behavior.

Benefits of Exercise

Researchers suggest that exercise may be the best natural way to battle the blues. For example, Steven Herman, MD, and colleagues of Duke University examined the relationship between exercise and depression in 156 subjects aged 50 years and older. Herman divided the patients into 3 groups:

1) People who exercised 3 times per week for a total of 45 minutes
2) People treated with sertraline (Zoloft) without exercise, and
3) People who received sertraline and participated in the exercise routine

Results of the study showed that all patients “experienced a significant drop in symptoms of depression — with very little difference in the therapeutic effect between the 3 groups.” In addition, 60% to 70% of participants “no longer met criteria for a major depressive disorder” by the time the study ended.

After 6 months, a follow up of the patients showed that participants in the exercise group were more likely to maintain a brighter outlook than patients from the medication group. In addition, fewer than 10% of the exercisers experienced a recurrence of depressive symptoms compared with 40% of the medication group as well as 30% of subjects who received both medication and exercise.

The positive findings led Herman and his colleagues to view exercise as an effective alternative to tradition pharmacologic approaches for treating depression.

Fitness Theories

Some researchers believe the release of endorphins (also known as happiness hormones) helps keep exercises feeling cheerful. Others believe the relationship is more complex and includes psychological, genetic, and biologic factors.

Additional studies show that people who exercise regularly have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and better sleep. Exercisers also tend to make healthier dietary choices than inactive people.

If your weekly weigh in is cause for discontent, consider that exercise is the best way to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. Among dieters who have lost weight in the past year, those who exercise regularly are more likely to keep their new-found physiques. Although slimness alone won’t cure feelings of sadness, having more energy from exercising, sleeping better, and feeling a sense of accomplishment from reaching your goals can help contribute to your serenity.

Beating Your Blues

If you’re experiencing mild, moderate, or severe depression, you should see your doctor. He or she can help determine the cause of your depression and recommend appropriate treatment. In addition to following your doctor’s advice, here are steps you can take to improve your outlook:

Once you have a green light from your doctor, take a daily walk, go for a swim at your local Y, or follow an exercise tape that’s well matched to your fitness level. Choosing an exercise you enjoy will keep you coming back for more.

  • Begin exercising
  • Choose healthy foods 
  • Eating wholesome and varied foods can contribute to overall good health. Eating regularly can help prevent your blood sugar from dropping rapidly, which can affect your mood
  • Cut caffeine 
  • If you tend to be anxious, don’t add to your agitation by consuming caffeinated beverages and foods such as coffees, teas, soft drinks, and chocolate
  • Get enough sleep
    Being overly tired can heighten feelings of sadness and despair

Stick with your program for at least 3 months. By then it will be a habit. Remember that there’s no quick fix for feeling down. Even if you feel better after only a few trips to the gym, sustaining your exercise program will help ensure your continued contentment.

When exercise alone isn't enough to help you beat the blues, cognitive behavioral therapy often can help. Our experienced psychologists, psychiatrists, and licensed social workers at the Summit Medical Group Behavioral Health and Cognitive Therapy Center can develop a practical and achievable treatment plan that is tailored to your needs and builds on your strengths.