Sport protects your brain and keeps depression at bay

Sport has always been a source of health and balance, and it’s not for nothing that regular exercise is recommended. As well as helping to maintain a normal weight and contributing to better physical health, sport is also useful for managing depression. Find out the benefits of sports and how to keep yourself motivated to exercise.

Did you know that movement helps you unwind and release feel-good endorphins? Scientists have found that playing sports regularly, especially cardio exercise, can change brain biology and help avoid depression and anxiety.

What are the mental benefits of sports?

We’ve all heard the details of how exercise improves musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and metabolic aspects. But did you know that the mental benefits of any type of movement are not to be overlooked either?

Moderate exercise also seems to have anti-inflammatory effects, regulating the immune system. This is particularly important given studies showing the potential role of inflammation in anxiety and depression.

Finally, there is evidence of the positive effects of exercise on neurotransmitters – brain chemicals that send signals between neurons – dopamine and endorphins. Both substances play a particularly important role in achieving motivation and a positive mood.

Does exercise prevent depression or are people who don’t have depression more likely to be active?

A recent study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, sheds some light on this. Using genetic data from more than 600,000 adults enrolled in several genome-wide association studies, researchers found “more evidence than ever that physical activity plays an important role in reducing the risk of depression,” says Karmel Choi, a researcher in psychiatric genetics and neurodevelopment at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-author of the study.

The researchers looked at several aspects: people’s genomes, their medical history of depression and symptoms, and how much exercise they got (as measured by fitness trackers and activity logs). Comparing this information, several genetic variants were identified that are linked to a person’s likelihood of exercising and others that are associated with a person’s likelihood of developing depression.

Sports may be protective against depression

People with genetic markers linked to a higher likelihood of exercising had a lower risk of developing depression, but people with markers of depression were no less likely to exercise. This finding, they say, suggests that exercise may protect against depression.

“Physical activity is beneficial for a lot of things,” says co-author Dr. Jordan Smoller, director of the Psychiatric Genetics and Neurodevelopmental Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It may have benefits not only for all sorts of health issues but also, it turns out, for the risk of developing depression,” he explains.

The new research basically adds to existing evidence that exercise can prevent depression. Here’s what else science says about how exercise affects mental health.

Exercise can reduce feelings of depression

Exercise is not a cure for mental health problems, and depression itself can be a barrier to physical activity.

But while exercise isn’t a perfect solution for depression, studies have shown it can make a difference. A review of several scientific studies found that physical activity – especially resistance training such as weight lifting – can reduce symptoms of depression, perhaps even as effectively as conventional treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication for some people. Other studies have found that virtually any type of exercise, from cardio to yoga, can lessen symptoms of depression.

Workouts can improve mood

It’s still unclear how exercise can have these effects, but researchers have various theories. More strenuous workouts, such as weight lifting and running, may increase blood flow to the brain, potentially altering its structure. Exercise can also trigger the release of mood-boosting endorphins. Yoga’s emphasis on breathing and mindfulness can also play an important role.

You don’t have to do a lot of exercises to see the difference

Research finds that even short exercise sessions improve both physical and mental health. If instead of sitting for 15 minutes in the morning, you run for 15 minutes, or if instead of sitting in bed or in an armchair for half an hour after eating, you use that half hour for a walk, that’s a level of activity that could make a difference.

How much exercise do you need to prevent depression?

Using data from more than 1.2 million American adults, another large recent study found that people could achieve a better mental state by doing just two hours of exercise each week (about 20 minutes a day). It has even been said that doing too much exercise – more than six hours a week – can be harmful to the psyche. Another study reached an even easier conclusion: just one hour of exercise a week may be enough to prevent depression.

How do you find the motivation to exercise?

The benefits of sports are clear, but finding motivation is another matter altogether. It turns out that motivation to exercise regularly can be easier to find if you broaden the definition of what it means to be active. Scientists say that simple things like climbing stairs, walking to the store, washing dishes, or picking up dry clothes and wrapping them up, and mopping – which people don’t think of as exercise – can add up to beneficial effects on depression.

Other research suggests that light exercise, such as walking, has been shown to be actually more beneficial for mental health than vigorous exercise. Recently updated physical activity guidelines also state that all types of movement can contribute to more physical and mental health benefits, even when added together.

So if it seems like too much effort to get to a gym or you just don’t feel comfortable with the idea of exercising in that environment, don’t be discouraged. Choose forms of exercise that are within your reach, because, as I said, even a short walk can give you a better mental state and help maintain physical health.

Tips to keep you motivated

But how can you find time to exercise regularly, and how do you keep your determination to be physically active whatever the conditions?

Choose a form of movement you enjoy

We don’t all have to run on the treadmill at the gym or jog through the park. What works for one person may not work for another. Try different activities and see which ones you like best: running, walking, dancing, cycling, boxing, weight lifting, swimming, yoga, and so on. You can even alternate them or adapt them according to the season to avoid boredom.

Don’t go for all or nothing

You don’t have to sacrifice an hour of sitting in traffic driving to and from the gym or walking miles to a cycling trail. The more time you waste getting to where you’re exercising, the harder it will be to stay motivated. Try to exercise either somewhere close to work or somewhere close to home or a chair in the house to avoid the tendency to give up because of travel.

One extra step is better than none and three squats are better than none. When you’re less motivated or just starting out, simply be tolerant of yourself. Do as much as you can! Even three minutes of dancing to your favorite song counts.

Combine sports with other activities

15 minutes of walking around the house while talking on the phone to a friend is still a form of exercise. 30 minutes of pedaling a stationary bike while watching the news on TV is still exercise. Working in the vegetable garden is still a movement.

Don’t lose confidence in movement

Many people take up sports when they want to lose weight. Although sports can make a big contribution to weight loss, it is not exercise that is the ultimate weight loss strategy, but the diet you choose. A cookie might have more calories than an hour of running. That doesn’t mean you have to give up exercise if you don’t lose weight, because sport offers benefits anyway even if you don’t lose as much weight as you want. What you eat and how much you eat is also important to get to a normal weight, so it’s a good idea to seek advice from a doctor to make a healthy weight loss diet plan.

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