Most people are aware of the link between exercise and health – they know that exercise helps prevent heart disease and benefits the body in many ways. But a new article in the ‘Monitor,’ a journal of the American Psychological Association, reviewing research on exercise and mood, concludes that exercise is as good a treatment for depression as antidepressants and better than drugs for preventing relapse. In addition, people with anxiety disorders and those prone to panic attacks get ‘triggered’ less easily if they exercise regularly. And you can’t beat exercise for speed: the uplift in depressed mood or relief from anxiety begins usually five minutes after exercising.

Another interesting thing about exercise is how little it takes to improve mood. One study found substantial improvement in depression with the equivalent of only an hour and a half of moderate walking per week or a one-hour low impact aerobics class per week. And in that study, which compared this ‘low dose’ exercise to no exercise and ‘high dose’ exercise– six hours of moderate walking a week- some women actually did better on the low dose.

The biggest mistake people make with exercise is they don’t use it when they really need it. The best TIME to exercise is – when you are feeling bad. NOT exercising when your mood is bad has been compared to taking aspirin anytime EXCEPT when you have a headache. If you exercise when you are down, you really notice the lift afterwards – and it helps to reinforce the habit.

So if exercise is such a good quick fix – and a long term treatment – for mood problems, how come therapists don’t talk it up more to clients? There are several reasons. First, not all therapists exercise regularly themselves. Second, there is a widespread belief, even among therapists, that for exercise to work you really have to exercise hard, long, and every day. No one seems to realize that many people get a lift from depression or a release from anxiety with even small amounts of exercise. I recommend people start small – five minutes is better than nothing. And the research shows that super-strenuous exercise not only isn’t better — if you exercise past the point where you can talk comfortably while you are moving – that will delay the mood improvement afterwards!

As to the ‘best’ form of exercise? Well, the research is all on cardiovascular/aerobic exercise, so we don’t yet know about the benefits of strength training or yoga. But what’s really clear is that the best exercise – is the exercise you will do. Find something you enjoy, and if you enjoy nothing, find something you can tolerate and find ways to make it better. Listen to audiobooks while you walk on a treadmill, watch TV or your Ipad while you row, do classes with friends or train with a buddy – whatever makes exercise something you look forward to – that’s the right exercise for you. You’ll feel better right away – even faster than a pill.


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