This Is How Much Exercise You Need To Offset Seasonal Depression

Registered Yoga Teacher By Georgina Berbari
Registered Yoga Teacher
Georgina Berbari is a Brooklyn-based health and wellness writer who reports for mindbodygreen, Elite Daily, Bustle, and elsewhere. She's also a certified yoga teacher through the Yoga Alliance and teaches both yoga and meditation.

Image by Borislav Zhuykov / Stocksy

Many people find themselves struggling with lulls in energy and mood as the weather gets gloomier and the days get shorter, known as seasonal affective disorder. SAD is a type of depression that occurs annually, starting around the autumn, worsening in the winter, and typically ending in the spring. Approximately half a million people in the U.S. suffer from SAD, and three-quarters of those sufferers are women. If you tend to be one of them, there may actually be a way to help prevent these depressive dips before they strike: staying physically active. 

A new study found that maintaining an active lifestyle can protect an individual from depressive episodes, which is especially relevant during this time of year. The paper, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, found people who engaged in at least four hours of exercise per week were significantly less likely to be diagnosed with future depressive episodes, even in the face of high genetic risk for the disorder.

The researchers used data on nearly 8,000 participants who filled out a survey pertaining to their general lifestyle habits, including physical activity. The participants were then followed for the next two years as the researchers mined millions of electronic health record data points and used this information to identify people who received diagnoses related to depression. Genetic risk scores were also calculated for each participant.

Unsurprisingly, people with a higher genetic risk were more likely to be diagnosed with depression over the two-year period. However, participants who reported being more physically active were less likely to develop new depressive episodes, even when genetic risk was accounted for. Further, higher levels of physical activity protected those with even the highest genetic risk scores for depression. This was the first study of its kind to exhibit how physical activity can influence depression despite genetic risk.

"Our findings strongly suggest that, when it comes to depression, genes are not destiny,” Karmel Choi, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Massachusetts General Hospital and lead author of the study, said in a news release. "On average, about 35 additional minutes of physical activity each day may help people to reduce their risk and protect against future depression episodes."

Both high-intensity and lower-intensity forms of exercise were linked to decreased odds of depression—so everything from fast-paced aerobic exercise to gentler stretching sessions.

Exercise obviously won't cure depression, and it can be hard to find motivation once you're already in depression's slump. But these findings do demonstrate the beneficial effects of moving the body to neutralize the risk of future episodes in individuals who are genetically vulnerable, according to Choi. With each added four hours of physical activity per week, the study's participants were 17% less likely to have a future depressive episode. 

These findings are optimistic for SAD sufferers whose disease is cyclical, as well as individuals who suffer from different types of depression that exist year-round or in episodes. While exercise, again, is not a cure for the complex symptoms of depression, this study, along with many others, proves that movement can indeed limit the effects of the disease.

As Amy Clover, the founder of Strong Inside Out, recently wrote for mbg, "I can't control many of depression's symptoms, which can make me feel powerless. However, I do have control over moving my body and making sure I fit some form of exercise into my day. Even if 10 minutes is all you can do, it's 10 minutes of standing up against your disorder rather than letting it call the shots for you.”

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