NCPS | On your feet, Britain! Combating depression with exercise

How Many People Suffer With Depression in the UK?

A mere couple of decades ago, the word ‘depression’ was associated by most people with a passing mood. Not with a chronic illness. Now, however, say the word ‘depression’ to pretty much anyone, and we can all name someone who has or is suffering from the illness. Many of us have struggled with it ourselves.

According to statistics, 19.7% of people in the UK are diagnosed with depression. That’s a huge swathe of the population – and that’s just those who have an official diagnosis. Many millions more are suffering in silence. This is an enormous increase in depression from previous decades. But why?

Partly this statistical increase is down to burgeoning awareness and changing attitudes. We’re more aware of depression than we used to be, and we’re less judgemental about it. This means that more people recognise when they’re getting ill and they’re more prepared to seek treatment. That’s a good thing. However, many believe that there may also be other factors at play. Some experts cite things like social media, an uncertain political and environmental future, the high cost of modern living and so on. Among these factors, lifestyle changes often feature prominently.

It’s no secret that we’re living far more sedentary, indoor lives than we used to. According to the 2017 Physical Inactivity report by the British Heart Foundation:

Nearly a third of adults in the UK are classed as ‘physically inactive’. 39% of British people are failing to meet Government activity guidelines. The average man in the UK spends the equivalent of 78 days per year sitting down. For the average women, it’s 74 days. Health complications caused by sedentary behaviour cost the NHS an estimated £1.2 billion per year. The World Health Organisation ranks physical inactivity as one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Sobering stuff – but what has it got to do with depression?


There has long been an established link between exercise (or lack thereof) and depression. In part, this is a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ argument. Among the symptoms of depression are lethargy and lack of motivation. You’re less likely to get up and go for a run if you’re suffering from depression than you would otherwise be. However, there is a bit more to it than that. Sedentary behaviours are also linked to poor cardiovascular health and a tendency to stay indoors. Both of these things are known to have a negative impact upon the brain, which could contribute to depression. What’s more, studies have shown that if patients with depression can increase their activity levels, they often feel a reduction in their symptoms.

Let’s delve into this a little further:

  • Your brain is an organ, like any other. It is nourished by your blood. Your circulation relies on your cardiovascular system in order to function well. Therefore, what’s good for your heart is good for your brain. Sedentary behaviours are a leading cause of heart and cardiovascular disease. Getting up and out and active will improve the health of your heart, which will in turn be able to get more oxygen and nutrients to your brain.
  • Exercise releases natural endorphins – ‘feel good’ cannabinoids – in the brain. Although the mood boost is short-lasting, they can help to break the intrusive and damaging ruminative thought cycles of depression. Doing this regularly over time can help to break depression’s grip.
  • Getting outside (if only for a quick stroll!) will expose your eyes to natural light and your skin to Vitamin D from the sunshine. Natural light is a trigger for serotonin to be released in the brain. Serotonin deficiency is a major factor in depression. Vitamin D is also thought to have a positive impact upon mood. Many studies have shown that getting outside (especially into green spaces) have a deeply beneficial impact upon mental health and wellbeing.
  • Exercise improves the quality of your sleep. Improving your sleep is a huge step towards improving your state of mind and quality of life.
  • Exercise will improve your general health, which can have an impact in how you feel about yourself. This is important for those whose depression has an element of body-consciousness, or is related to ill health.
  • So, all in all, exercise (especially outdoor exercise) really can have a positive impact upon depression. However, when you’re in the depths of a depressive episode, strapping on some trainers and getting out into the fresh air is a lot easier said than done. How can you cut through the lethargy and get up on your feet? We have some suggestions:
  • Start small. If you’re really struggling, something as simple as getting out of bed and walking around the house can be as great an achievement as running a marathon. Don’t aim for the unachievable – do what you can.
  • Find something you can do regularly. The important thing about using exercise to combat depression is that you have to sustain it over time. If you are going to struggle to get to the gym once or twice a week, aim for something more doable. Maybe walk to the shops rather than driving. Climb stairs rather than take escalators. Take up cycling. It doesn’t have to be much – just do something, regularly, which gets you up off the sofa and raises your heart rate.
  • Note your progress. It’s not just the exercise itself which is important. It can also help if you notice your body and mind changing as you go. Make a note of your milestones and achievements and congratulate yourself for them.
  • Speak to a counsellor. An accredited counsellor can teach you strategies for beating the slump of depression. They’ll help you to establish an exercise framework which is achievable for you. They’ll also provide a non-judgemental space in which you can process your feelings, and they’ll help you to track your progress (both physically and mentally). Peruse the rest of our website for more on finding the right counsellor for you.
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