If exercise helps depression, how much do I need to do and where?

Posted by & filed under Health and Fitness.

So my blog sleep and depression said that the first step to helping depression is to not skimp on sleep and do everything possible to sleep very well indeed.  This blog looks at the next step to helping depression, and that is exercise.  There is no doubt that exercise helps depression but the question is how much and what type.  Standard advice seems to be 30 mins a day, 5 times a week.  The type recommended is invariably cardiovascular, the exercise that raises heart rate and makes us get out of breath.  This is all well and good if the person is not too depressed, and the cause of the depression is not physical pain.  If it hurts to walk, then a prescription of 30 mins a day is laughable.

The meta-analysis of research studies referred to in the video found that to raise the spirits only takes being outside for 5 minutes.  For many this is a much more realistic starting point. To quote from the abstract:

Dose responses for both intensity and duration showed large benefits from short engagements in green exercise, and then diminishing but still positive returns.  Every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood; the presence of water generated greater effects. 1

5 minutes!  Now this is impressive stuff.  We’re talking a bit of duck feeding – good, water – or, if there is a garden at home, then a bit of gentle snipping of straggly bushes will lift the spirits.  Nature is very healing.  To feel the wind and rain on the face when we’ve been hugger muggered inside for hours opens the heart.  Even if it is cold outside, the cold fresh air is revitalising.  Of course, on a warm day it can be extremely pleasant trundling around outside.  It is the winter where we just have to put the coat and shoes on, brave that weather and turn our pale face towards the skies.

Our body is meant to move – and ideally it moves about outside.  Cardio in the gym, flogging away on the treadmill or cross trainer can be mind-blowingly dull.  What I also have learnt from my years as a trainer is that people do what they are capable of.  If the body is not well, then there is no desire to exercise at all.  However I have also found that people tend to blame other things, to find excuses to avoid looking for ways to, say, reduce back ache.  A reduction in pain will lead to more willingness to move.  So there is a bit of a circular problem here – we are not exercising because it hurts, then we get sluggish and low leading to a lack of desire to even begin finding ways out of our current physical mess.  Something has to give.  So here we are, proved: 5 minutes only outside makes us less depressed.  If we can get a little less depressed, then the energy can be found to start finding out ways of reducing the pain.  And then quite naturally the desire to do a bit more will grow. From little acorns great oak trees grow.

Of course, there is also depression but there is not much pain in the body.  Again from experience, if we don’t move, then muscles shorten and weaken from lack of use and excessive sitting and in due course this will lead to physical pain as well. So once again, even if indigo blue in mood, put the coat on, then put the kettle on, go outside – even if it is only a stagger up and down the street.  Look up at the sky even if leaden with grey cloud.  Let the shoulders drop down and back. Relax the face.  Even in the worst urban environment, there is always the sky.  Then when we get back, there is a freshly boiled kettle ready for a nice cup of something warm. Just begin.  From little acorns great oak trees grow.

  1. Barton J, Pretty J, What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis.  Environ. Sci. Technol., 2010, 44 (10), pp3947-3966. []

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)