Daily exercise is perhaps the most beneficial holistic treatment for depression and anxiety, though also the most challenging to implement.
A regular exercise program doesn’t have to be as intense as swimming miles at the pool, or spending hours in the gym. A weekly movement practice which gets the heart rate up and produces a sweat lasting 20-30 minutes on at least 3 days a week will immensely benefit symptoms of depression and anxiety. More days a week are preferable, but 3 days are a great place to start. Ideally, we should be exercising 3-5 days a week for at least 45 minutes. Movement practices could be walking briskly, jogging/running, biking, yoga, rowing, aerobic exercises such as pilates and cross-fit, or team sports like basketball, soccer, hockey, or roller derby.
Exerting the body rigorously enough to produce a sweat, also produces endorphins, a chemical in the body similar to morphine. Endorphins produce a sense of euphoria, and also help diminish pain – they are essentially the body’s natural pain killer. They have been linked to decreased anxiety and a heightened sense of self esteem. Self-esteem is something that is often diminished in individuals suffering from depression, and an aspect which perpetuates a depressive cycle. The endorphins produced through exercise can help make us feel good about our body and help lift us out of feeling blue.
Exercise also improves cardiovascular function, raises metabolism, and builds skeletal muscle, all things which are linked to lower risks of all chronic diseases. Exercise is also a good way to support healthy eating habits which are also linked to decreasing the symptoms of depression.
Because of the stress exercise can put on the cardiovascular system, it is a good idea to consult a naturopathic physician before initiating an exercise program, especially if you haven’t been active in a while, and have any reason to suspect heart problems.
Node Smith, associate editor for NDNR, is a fifth year naturopathic medical student at NUNM, where he has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine amongst the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend campout where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Three years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.