Exercise and Depression

5 Questions to Ask Yourself If Working Out Makes You Blue

runners preparing in urban invironment
Henrik Sorensen Getty

One of the most important and established benefits of exercise is the positive effect it can have on mood. There's a lot of research showing that regular physical activity can relieve depression, ease anxiety, and more.

Not everyone finds that a workout leaves them feeling happier, calmer, or emotionally steady. What's more, if that's the case they worry they're doing something wrong. If this rings true for you, ask yourself the five questions that follow.

Your answers may assure you that you aren't to blame if exercise doesn't make you feel happier and also may help you figure out how to glean the mood-lifting benefits of regular activity so many people enjoy.

1. Am I Overdoing It?

When it comes to exercise, more isn't necessarily more. If you're working out too hard you could be overtraining, and one of the symptoms of overtraining is depression. For example, a 2012 study published in Sports Medicine found that people with overtraining syndrome have high levels of tension, depression, fatigue, confusion, and loss of vigor. If you’re an overachiever, you might get frustrated that your performance isn’t great and, as a result, push yourself even harder. The study also found that overtraining can drain the brain of the mood-enhancing brain chemical serotonin.

Try lightening up on your workout routine. If you're concerned that doing so will set you back fitness-wise, schedule a few sessions with a qualified exercise trainer who can help you fine-tune your workout to be both effective and less likely to leave you feeling emotionally low.

2. Do I Have a History of Depression?

The effects of exercise on brain chemistry may play a part in increased feelings of depression or anxiety after workouts. Serotonin isn't the only neurotransmitter involved; exercise also affects levels of another mood-lifting brain chemical, dopamine. Both serotonin and dopamine are affected by exercise and by depression.

The interplay of the two on brain chemistry may not always be positive. In other words, if you already have an imbalance of serotonin and dopamine due to depression, exercise could have the effect of throwing it off even more, rather than helping to stabilize it.

3. What is My Stress Level?

Stress can wreak havoc on the body and mind. If you're already stressed out, physically or mentally, a workout may be an extra drain on your energy stores rather than a help. The additional stress may interfere with your sleep, leave you feeling especially fatigued, and flood your body with cortisol, a brain chemical that's released during "fight or flight" situations, causing you to feel anxious and frazzled. So instead of heading out for a punishing five-mile run or a hard-core session with a trainer, consider a less intense workout—yoga, stretching, walking.

4. What Are My Expectations?

When you work to try to lose weight, eat well, and get fit and aren't getting the results as quickly as you'd like, it certainly can affect your mood. The number on the scale should go down, your clothes should fit less snugly, you should feel stronger and look more buff. The problem is, it can take at least two or three months for those things to happen.

In the meantime, if you begin to feel discouraged you can easily become down and depressed.

One way to avoid this is to reset your goals for the time being: Focus on feeling good and being healthy, both of which you can achieve pretty quickly simply by making better lifestyle choices. By taking off the pressure, you can learn to enjoy the changes you're making, which should encourage you to stick to them. Before you know it, your consistency will pay off in a body that not only feels and performs better but looks better too.

5. Am I Fueling My Body Enough?

During exercise, your body relies on blood sugar, or glucose, as its main source of fuel.

When the levels of glucose in your blood are low, you simply won't have enough energy to make it through your workout—just like a car that's run out of gas. Before you work out, put something in your body to help prevent your blood sugar levels from dropping too much—a situation that can temporarily put a damper on your mood. It doesn't have to be a full meal, nor should it be: If you're too full, exercising may be uncomfortable. Eat a snack that includes a combo of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats—almond butter on a whole-grain bread, for example. And be sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your workout.

Sources:

Armstrong LE and VanHeets JL. "The Unknown Mechanism of the Overtraining Syndrome." Sports Med 2002;32(3): 185-209.

Meeusen R. and Meirleir K. "Exercise and Brain Neurotransmission." Sports Medicine 20.3 (2012): 160-88.

Peluso, Marco Aurelio Monteiro, et al.,Physical Activity and Mental Health: The Association Between Exercise and MoodClinics 60.1(2005).

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