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Exercise and Depression: How Cardio Can Help Your Mood

The relationship between exercise and depression is intriguing. Studies have shown that exercising can alleviate the symptoms of depression, and now a recent study indicates that being physically fit may actually lower your risk of developing depression in the future, too. This means that a healthy lifestyle might not only reduce your risk of physical ailments down the road, but it may help you psychologically, too.

This recent study, published in Preventive Medicine, looked at more than one million people and determined their fitness levels based on cycling, running on a treadmill, and walking up stairs. Participants who had low cardiorespiratory fitness levels had a 75 percent higher risk of developing depression. Participants with a "medium" level of fitness had only a 23 percent higher risk -- that's a huge difference. (About 98 percent of the participants were male, so it will be interesting to see if the same results are seen with women.)

How Exercise Helps Depression

Many studies have shown a clear link between depression and physical fitness. Teens who engage in physical fitness can reduce the risk of depression and suicide later in life, and even exercise as simple as walking can reduce overall symptoms of depression. While it's still unclear exactly how exercise helps depression, experts have many theories. First, cardio exercise produces endorphins that may improve your sense of well-being and overall mood. Exercise can also improve sleep, which can play a role in depression, and cardio can increase neurotransmitters like glutamate, GABA, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which may be low in depressed people. Because going outside, changing your routine, and interacting with others can also help your mood, it's likely that multiple factors are at work when it comes to exercise helping depression.

Time to Get a Move On

You won't find a general prescription for a specific exercise or fitness routine to alleviate depression, but experts do offer a few pointers. First, it's a good idea to take a slow approach at the beginning. Motivation can be tough when you're depressed, so start with small goals that encourage you.

One doctor suggests exercising three to five times a week, 45 to 60 minutes at a time, and getting your heart rate up to 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. Others suggest that 20 to 30 minutes in this zone can be helpful. Here's the bottom line: Get your body moving a few times a week, whether you're jogging, swimming, walking fast outside, taking a cardio class, or running on a treadmill. Just make sure you're getting your heart rate up and you're doing it consistently. However, please be sure to talk to your doctor to confirm that an exercise you're considering is good for your current health.

You don't have to be a superstar athlete to benefit from exercise -- the Preventine Medicine study showed a significant benefit in exercise and depression just going from "low" physical fitness to "medium." And don't quit if you don't see results right away. Just like medication can take some time to start working, the mood-elevating benefits of cardio exercise may take time to kick in. And even if you're not depressed today, starting to work out now may play a preventative role in the future.

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