Exercise found to be more effective than anti-depressants when it comes to depression

young woman jogging down the street with headphones on
Exercise said to improve depression more than medsBetsie Van der Meer - Getty Images

When you've got depression, simply getting out of bed can be tough – but a new study has found movement (and some types of exercise in particular) is actually an incredibly helpful tool when it comes to combatting some of the symptoms linked with poor mental health and low mood.

In fact, physical activity could even be twice as effective as anti-depressants at treating depression, according to a new study.

Published in the British Medical Journal, the research suggests walking or jogging at least two or three times a week is the best method for improving symptoms, with these activities found to improve participants' symptoms of depression by 63% (compared to a 26% increase when just taking anti-depressants).

In other words, the research "adds to a growing body of evidence that getting more physically active can have benefits for the mental wellbeing of many of us", explains Rosie Weatherley, Information Content Manager for mental health charity Mind.

And in the words of the researchers themselves: "Exercise could be considered alongside psychotherapy and anti-depressants as core treatments for depression."

To be clear though, we're not saying you should ditch your anti-depressants in favour of a gym membership (remember, your medication use and dose should always be discussed with a doctor), and it's worth stating that "for some people, suggesting exercise as an antidote to poor mental health can be unhelpful or even harmful," according to Weatherley.

As Mind's research also shows, "People with mental health problems experience additional barriers to getting active, such as the side-effects of medication, access to space and equipment, and not knowing where to start."

But there are lots of benefits to be reaped from exercise if that's something you're interested in.

"When you exercise you release 'feel good' hormones called endorphins which help reduce negative feelings and improve your mood," explains Hayley Jarvis, Head of Physical Activity at Mind.

As well as that, Jarvis points out that exercise can help to break up racing thoughts that often compound depression. "As the body tires so does the mind, leaving you calmer and better able to think clearly. Simply taking time out to exercise can also give people the space to think things over and help clear the mind," she explains.

But the term 'exercise' is a pretty sweeping one, so which kinds of physical activity are going to be most effective in helping you to beat depression?

Experts from Mind and Anytime Fitness help you work out where to start:

1. Walking outside

A common misconception is that exercise has to be 'hard' to be effective. But sometimes, quite the opposite is true. Hard exercise can trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which is often present in high levels in people who suffer with depression. For that reason, Marvin Burton, Head of Fitness at Anytime Fitness UK, prefers to recommend more passive forms of exercise.

"A walk in the great outdoors can be a fantastic way to combat depression," Burton tells Cosmopolitan. "We’ve all heard the expression of going outside to 'clear your head', but it’s so true. Ultimately, if you have a clearer mind, you’re more likely to achieve greater changes to your physical and mental health."

Jarvis agrees, pointing out that scientific research suggests outdoor exercise can be as effective as anti-depressants in treating mild to moderate depression. "The colours, sounds and smells we find outdoors stimulate our senses, and being in regular social contact with people can help boost your self-esteem and reduce loneliness," she explains.

The 3 best exercises to help depression
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2. Running

Running is the kind of exercise that enables you to notice when your fitness levels progress, which is the kind of reward Jarvis suggests will help someone with depression. "Running is a hugely rewarding exercise where you can easily track progress and improvement," she says. "It’s important to find a type of activity that you love and stick to it."

Burton adds that running can "provide a great escape from your everyday routine and allows you to focus, strive and achieve a personal goal or objective." Plus, he reminds us that running is one of the most accessible forms of exercise, requiring just a pair of trainers and not much else.

3. Group exercise

In the midst of a depressive episode, it can be easy to want to shut yourself away, becoming isolated from the company of others. But this isn't advisable, and exercising in a group might be a good way to avoid it. "As well as the camaraderie, having the opportunity to speak to people and be social as you work out can deliver huge benefits," says Burton.

"A group activity might be best for you if you value your boost of a strong social element," adds Jarvis, who also points out that you're much more likely to keep doing it if it's fun and you enjoy the company of those around you.

The 3 best exercises to help depression
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There are so many different classes available out there from yoga to dance (we've rounded up some of our favourite inclusive ones here too, catering for a range of disabilities and identities) - so really, the choice of which one you go for is yours.

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