Research shows that exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants at improving our mental health. Exercise helps untangle my mind and allows me to see things in a better light. It’s not a cure-all, but it is a boost.

The gym is my happy place, and exercise is one of my natural antidepressants.
The gym is my happy place, and exercise is one of my natural antidepressants.
Photo by Luis Vidal on Unsplash

In a previous article, I shared 5 natural strategies that help me cope with bipolar disorder (along with medication) and exercise was on the list. Here, I’ll dive deeper into how exercise helps and why I consider it one of several natural antidepressants.

Natural Antidepressants: The Science Behind Exercise as a Mood-Booster

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that regulates mood. It’s located in the inner medial region of the temporal lobe. The hippocampus is smaller in people with depression. Mine is smaller.

“… Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.” –  Dr. Michel Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Harvard Health Letter, July, 2013

Low-intensity exercise over a sustained period triggers the release of proteins known as neurotrophic, or growth factions. These help with the formation of new nerve cell connections and they improve overall brain function and mental health. Prescription antidepressants work through a different mechanism. Antidepressants and exercise combine for a two-pronged attack.

If done for an average of 45 minutes, three times a week for a 10-week period, there is a beneficial effect for those with depression. In the short-term, there is a boost in endorphins, a class of mood-enhancing brain chemicals that act as natural antidepressants.

Here’s the best part: According to the research, exercise can reduce the risk of depression by 17%. Exercise isn’t a cure-all, but it’s a complementary strategy for improving mental health.

Working Out is Fun

Exercise is among many natural antidepressants that I rely on and it's a huge mental health aid for me. Nothing lifts my mood higher.
Exercise is among many natural antidepressants that I rely on and it’s a huge mental health aid for me. Nothing lifts my mood higher.
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

I lift weights at the gym six times a week. Normally, I go in the morning before work. The exercise makes me feel good about myself because of the blood flow to the brain, but it also gives me confidence in my appearance.

Depression colors everything in a shade of negativity. I can see my reflection and all the flaws, but during and after exercise, I like what I see in the mirror. This lifts my mood just as you’d expect antidepressants to.

You see guys checking themselves out at the gym. I’m one of them. I used to think it was ego-driven—and it largely is—but it’s harmless.

Guys that check themselves out are noticing the improvement to their physique that they’ve been working toward, and the satisfaction and fulfillment with what they see on the outside has a powerful effect on how they feel on the inside.

So the next time you see a guy checking himself out in the mirror, instead of assuming he’s just another arrogant asshole, consider that maybe he’s also fighting depression. Perhaps he’s using exercise instead of or in addition to prescription antidepressants.

I work out with one of my best friends. It’s been a great bonding experience, and that is also on my list of natural antidepressants. We talk about everything under the sun, we laugh, and then we go silent and put in the work. The workout gives me something to look forward to, and that boosts my mood as well.

Pushing through an intense workout gives me a sense of accomplishment. I feel I’ve conquered a challenge, and that boosts my mood too.

During lockdown I didn’t have access to the gym. My options for exercise were limited, and this really got me down. Working out at home is not the same. Not even a bit. It’s like reading off a tablet when you enjoy the feel of a book. It’s like eating a microwave meal when you like home cooking. It’s not the same. 

Once I got back to the gym and picked up my normal exercise routine, my mood went sky-high. It was a night and day difference.

Don’t Know Where or How to Start?

Just take that first step toward better mental health. Exercise is a powerful antidepressant.
Just take that first step toward better mental health. Exercise can as powerful as antidepressants.
Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash

How to Use Exercise Along With Antidepressants

Pick a form of exercise you love to do—dancing, walking, or playing a sport. If you enjoy it, it’s easier to stick with it. Make sure you do enough of it to get a beneficial effect. As stated above, research has found that 45 minutes of activity, three times a week, is most effective at improving mental health.

Whichever form of exercise you choose, it’s important to start slow and build up gradually in small increments. This method will trick your brain into creating a habit.

For example, if you want to go walking but you don’t think you’ll like it, start with just five or 10 minutes. Do that for a few days. The exact duration isn’t something you need to worry about at first. What’s more important, initially, is establishing an exercise routine.

Over the course of the next week or two, work your way up to 45 minutes and your choice of exercise will have become habitual. At that point, if you skip your walk, you’ll feel as if you’ve forgotten to do something.

That’s how I feel if I miss the gym. There’s a void. My mood sours. My issue with depression is thick. Exercise is very important to my well-being.

If you’re struggling with mental health issues, I hope I’ve inspired you to give exercise a go. If you’re already doing it, I hope this encourages you to keep at it. Adding in more natural mood-boosters may even allow you to reduce your dose of antidepressants.

Do you think antidepressants work better when combine with exercise? Have you been able to lower your dose of antidepressants with exercise or other natural mental health strategies? What’s your favorite form of exercise for a mood boost? Tell me in the comments below.