According to Dr. John Ratey, who is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, practicing psychiatrist, and author of seven books on brain functioning, yes!
“Depression is an erosion of connections,” he writes in his book, SPARK. By connection, he means both the cellular connections in our brains – the wiring and communication systems that link brain cells to one another – and the figurative connections we foster in our lives. “Exercise reestablishes those connections.”
Exercise and movement are absolutely critical to connected living – and one of the easiest places to start. We often start connection workshops with some sort of physical activity. Moving our bodies in deliberate, challenging ways helps us re-inhabit our physical selves, and rediscover the primal joy of physical exertion. Modern life doesn’t require us to use our bodies the way we used to 100 or 1000 years ago, and the majority of us live our lives mostly in our heads. We’re out of touch with our physical needs, and missing out on the most primal experiences of living.
There are scientific reasons exercise lifts depression and brings us back to ourselves. During exercise, our brain produces norepinephrine, which is like a wake-up call to the brain. It revs up brain functioning and also boosts self-esteem (which in turn affects depression). Exercise also releases feel-good endorphins, dopamine, and seratonin, and helps regulate the systems responsible for detecting and maintaining healthy levels of these essential compounds. The result is a brain that’s primed to communicate across neural pathways, thrumming with energy and joy, and ready for whatever comes next.
If that’s not a great jumping off point for a life of meaning and purpose, we don’t know what is.