Non-Traditional Treatment of Depression: Exercise, Yoga, and Tai Chi

Millions of Americans suffer from depression each year.  While medication and psychotherapy can provide great benefit to those suffering from the disorder, researchers have found that less traditional treatment methods are worth another look.  In particular, exercise has been found to boost mood and contribute to overall mind/body wellness.  Whether used as a supplement to traditional methods of treatment for those with clinical depression or as a quick mood booster for a case of the blues, physical activity can pay dividends in anyone’s wellness routine.

The Power of Exercise

The effect of physical activity in easing depression has long been documented, and exercise is a wellness movement cornerstone for patients with mental illness.  Exercise is considered a self-care strategy that is frequently recommended to help patients manage their depression.

There are numerous ways in which regular exercise helps reduce depression, including:

  • Releasing endorphins and neurotransmitters that boost mood;
  • Reducing chemicals in the immune system that tend to worsen depression;
  • Raising body temperature, which can have a calming effect;
  • Decreasing stress and insomnia, both associated with depression;
  • Improving self-confidence as body image improves and exercise goals are met;
  • Providing distraction from negative thoughts;
  • Creating opportunities for social interaction.

Traditional exercise, ranging from brisk walks to team sports activities, can provide psychological benefits to everyone, including those who struggle with depression. As little as twenty minutes of exercise per day can have a meaningful impact on one’s mental health.

Exercise and Mindfulness

Research points to the particular benefits of exercise that combines physical activity with mental focus. “Mindfulness” activities use such techniques as deep breathing or meditation to help clear the mind of distracting or stressful thoughts.

Mindfulness refers to a state of having open and active attention to the present, without judging one’s thoughts and feelings. It means truly living in the moment and being more awake to one’s experiences.

Today, several practices combine tools from exercise, meditation, and mindfulness principles to offer physical fitness routines that are also calming to the mind.  Two popular examples are yoga and tai chi.

Yoga therapy has long been known to provide many health benefits, including pain and stress reduction.  Now researchers and practitioners have found that yoga can help individuals who suffer from depression.  Its calming and gentle nature is appealing to many for whom rigorous physical exercise may seem more challenging.

Yoga practice emphasizes concentration, breathing, and smooth movements that may calm both the mind and body.  Participants are often encouraged to focus on positive images or to block negative thoughts, thereby reducing stress and anxiety.

One way in which yoga appears to impact depression is through the increase of serotonin, an important brain chemical that is often deficient in individuals with depression.  Higher levels of serotonin in the brain can boost mood – a principle utilized by many modern antidepressant medications.

Tai chi is another type of workout that has been found to ease depression.  While this Chinese practice was originally developed centuries ago as a form of self-defense, tai chi is now used as a particularly gentle and graceful form of exercise.  It is often utilized for stress reduction and many health conditions.

Tai chi is designed to promote serenity through its flowing, stretching movements, which are performed in a focused and slow manner.  Deep breathing accompanies the movements. Classic tai chi combines elements of meditation, exercise, and focused breathing, all of which are associated with reductions in depression and anxiety. Numerous research studies support the mood benefits of practicing tai chi.

The practice of tai chi is often promoted among older adults because it is such a gentle, low-impact exercise.  Tai chi has been found effective in reducing depression in older adults with major depression, as well as improving cognition.

Almost any form of exercise can be a valuable part of a wellness routine for those who suffer from depression.  But exercises which also incorporate mindfulness activities may offer superior benefits for both physical and mental health.

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