How Exercise Helps With Depression

Slim,sleepPeople with severe depression can benefit from a targeted exercise program How Exercise Helps With Depression in two ways: on the one hand, it dampens the symptoms of depression, and on the other hand, it improves the plasticity of the brain.

Depression is increasingly becoming a widespread disease: in Germany, almost one in ten people will develop depression in the course of their lives. And the number of people affected continues to rise. Psychological, external and genetic factors are involved in the development of depression.


These include, for example, conflicts, social isolation, stress, overload in everyday life, the internal clock and seasonal influences.

People with depression often withdraw, are listless, and often become physically inactive. At the same time, depression usually reduces the density of synapses in the brain and neuroplasticity. The technical jargon describes the ability of the brain to adapt to new experiences. The willingness to change is important for all learning and adaptation processes of the brain.

Scientists from the Ruhr University Bochum and the University of Bielefeld examined how a specific exercise program affects the symptoms of depression and the neuroplasticity of the brain in people with depression.

The study included 41 people with depression who were clinically treated. Half of the test subjects completed a three-week exercise program in addition to the psychological therapy during their stay in the clinic. This program is specially designed for you. It was varied, contained playful elements, but had no competitive or examination character. Rather, it required collaboration with a partner or the entire group. In this way, motivation and social interaction were specifically promoted and fears of challenges and negative experiences with physical activity – keyword school sports – were reduced.

Before and after the exercise intervention, the study team determined the severity of the depressive symptoms with the help of questionnaires that the test subjects and the study team answered. The scientists also determined the neuroplasticity of the brain using transcranial magnetic stimulation.

After three weeks, the scientists found clear differences between the two groups of patients: the symptoms of depression in the participants in the exercise group had decreased more than in the normal therapy group. The former reported significantly fewer fears, inability to make decisions, pessimism and listlessness.

At the same time, there were also changes in the brains of the test subjects: The targeted exercise program had significantly increased the plasticity and adaptability of the brain area responsible for body movements (motor cortex). Many other networks are linked to this area of ​​the brain, so that the positive changes radiated. As a consequence, the normally less willingness of the brain to change in the case of depression improved noticeably.

The more the willingness to change increased, the more clearly the clinical symptoms decreased, reports.. This shows that there is an effect of physical activity on symptoms and the willingness of the brain to change. To what extent the change in symptoms and the changeability of the brain are causally linked, we cannot answer from these data.. It is well known that physical activity is good for the brain, for example because it stimulates the formation of new connections between nerve cells. This could well play a role here as well.  The neurological changes could in turn have a beneficial effect on the depressive symptoms.

The results show the importance of supposedly simple things like physical activity in the treatment and prevention of conditions like depression.

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