Can You Exercise Your Way to Happiness?

Depressed? Stuck in a rut? Feeling like you can’t get up and do anything?

One of the best things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms of major depression is to get out and get moving. Go for a brisk walk. Go to a Zumba class. Pump some iron. Get some exercise.

“When you have major depression—not just being sad or disappointed—the brain is in a state of injury,” says Randall Moore, MD, JD, Scott & White Psychiatrist. “The body is producing excessive amounts of stress hormones.  These stress hormones suppress a chemical in your brain called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).  BDNF helps your brain make connections between the nerve cells and helps parts of the brain develop new nerve cells,” Dr. Moore explains.

“When you’re depressed, the BDNF levels in your brain fall, and your hippocampus loses nerve cells and shrinks. The hippocampus is your brain’s main area for memory. The hippocampus also is involved in other mental tasks such as organizing information and concentrating. When your hippocampus shrinks,” Dr. Moore says, “you have trouble with memory and concentration. The hippocampus controls other parts of the brain, too, and these downstream effects cause trouble with sleep, appetite and energy as well.”

Aerobic and strength-training exercises can help ease the symptoms of depression because they increase levels of BDNF in the brain, says Dr. Moore.

With increased BDNF, your brain remains flexible and healthy, able to respond appropriately to the stressors in your life.


To increase your BDNF with exercise, “the recommended dose of exercise is 40 minutes a day, five times a week, in your target heart rate zone,” Dr. Moore suggests.

“You’ll have to exercise with this frequency for several weeks to experience the initial therapeutic effect of increasing neurotrophic factors in the brain,” Dr. Moore says.

In other words, hang in there. It takes time to start feeling better, but the exercise can make a difference in your mood and general well-being.  It’s scientific.

“People who are aerobically fit,” Dr. Moore says, “have a hippocampus that is measurably larger than those who aren’t fit. Exercise can make your hippocampus grow as much as 15 to 16 percent.”

“With a stronger, larger, healthier hippocampus, you can tolerate more stress and your memory will be better,” Dr. Moore says.  “You will also be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Studies show that exercise increases dopamine and serotonin levels—the feel-good chemicals—in the brain, as well as releasing endorphins, hormones responsible for the so-called runner’s high.

Though it may be tough to start an exercise program, and exercise itself may be uncomfortable at first, the payoff in both elevated mood and overall improved health is vast.

“Moreover, if you don’t exercise three or four hours a week, you’re deteriorating. Your body is in decline. We need to reorient the way we think in order to get moving much more,” says Dr. Moore. It’s healthier for our bodies and better for our brains.

Dr. Moore offers these tips for using exercise to combat depression:

  • Start with something simple, such as brisk walking
  • Start with consistency and work on intensity and duration later
  • Start with something you like and is manageable to you
  • Set attainable and realistic goals
  • Reward yourself for achieving your goals

Dr. Moore says the depressed patients he’s treated with exercise therapy unfailingly got better. “If people try it, it works. But you have to continue it for the rest of your life to be healthy. You can’t be healthy without exercise,” Dr. Moore says.

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Can You Exercise Your Way to Happiness?