How Physical Activities Like Martial Arts Can Reduce Depression

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It’s estimated that one million Australians are suffering from depression, while just over two million suffer from anxiety.

If you’re one of these Australians, it’s safe you say you’re sick of hearing:


“Chin up!”


“Harden up!”


“Stop being a pussy!”


You’re sick of hearing it and it sends you further into self-loathing and intensifies your anxiety in the outside world.

Unfortunately, the common ‘solution’ for depression is the prescription of antidepressant drugs. While they do have their place in the treatment of depression, they can be damaging if prescribed unnecessarily or if you become dependant upon them.

Recently, multiple studies have shown the efficacy of rigorous exercise in the treatment of depression, either in combination or as a substitute for medication.

Throwing myself into training has been a huge factor in my own recovery and the treatment of my depression. Yes, don’t let that ear-to-ear smile I’m famous for fool you; I was at one point on a steady regimen of therapy and Zoloft.

I found that antidepressants wrecked me. Both when I was on them, and when I tried to quit them cold turkey (without notifying my doctor or my family).

I did however find solace in training with my then coach and mentor Vincent Perry. No matter how negatively I perceived myself, and my ability to deal with the world, I found training everyday helped me to cope.

Whether it was the feeling of accomplishment, belonging or the health and fitness benefits, training made me feel better than I’d ever felt before and to this day it still aids in my recovery.

But enough about me, this article is about you, more specifically, how pursuing regular strenuous activity can benefit you in your battle with depression.

It’s all well and good to say…“Hey you, get up and get active, and you’ll feel great!”…with a cheesy-ass smile (again, the one I’m kind of I’m famous for).

I don’t want to do that because I know it won’t help or encourage you.

What I will do, though, is break down exactly how exercise can help you fight your depression and let you make the decision for yourself.


Part 1: How Reuptake Inhibitor Antidepressants Work 

Reuptake inhibitors are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants and they include:

  • SSRIs – Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors
  • SNRIs – Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors
  • NDRIs – Norepinephrine and Dopamine Reuptake Inhibitors

To better understand how these drugs work to alleviate the symptoms of depression, let’s take a look at how nerves in the body communicate with each other.

Decision-making, learning, breathing, heart beats, sleep, concentration and mood all rely on cells communicating with each other via neurotransmitters.

Well-known neurotransmitters include:

  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine
  • Epinephrine

Nerve cells work like tubes in a circuit, transporting these neurotransmitters to other nerve cells in order to signal a required action.

Where these nerve cells “connect” with each other is what’s known as the synapse. I use the word connect loosely as in reality this connection is separated by a small gap called the synaptic cleft.

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume the neurotransmitter in our model is serotonin.



(Image courtesy of Bod*ecology)


In the image above, you can see serotonin passing from one nerve cell through the synaptic cleft, and attaching itself to the serotonin receptors in the other.

Serotonin receptors will take as much serotonin they can until their threshold has been reached before sending it to the next cell in the circuit.

When the threshold is reached and no more serotonin can be received, the process needs to be turned off so that serotonin isn’t unnecessarily flooding the system.

Enzymes are released to destroy some of the excess serotonin floating around the cleft, while the rest of the remaining serotonin will be taken back up into the nerve cell (reuptake), turning off the redundant flow.  

In a nutshell, reuptake inhibitors work by stopping the reuptake of serotonin into the nerve, allowing it to stay in the synapse for longer, increasing the available serotonin to improve and regulate mood.

The problem is, the more serotonin available the more serotonin receptors are created in an effort to absorb these leftovers. This then leads to a higher demand of serotonin to accommodate the extra receptors, and can cause a vicious cycle of constant increases in antidepressants dosages.

As vicious as this cycle is, I really want to state that these drugs do play an important role for some people and that if you’re currently on them, and this information has scared you, please talk to your doctor first before doing anything rash like going cold turkey.

Suddenly going off antidepressants, or unnecessarily discontinuing their use, will only lead to additional and more severe complications.

Remember, the point of this article is not to demonise your medication; we are simply learning what can be expected if they are used.


Part 2: The Benefits of Physical Activity as an Antidepressant 

Ok, so how do martial arts and other rigorous physical activity aid in mitigating the symptoms of depression?

Is it a spiritual thing? Does it have something to do with the way you tie your belt or fix your gi?

It 100% has something to do with Mr. Miyagi, right?

Well, no not really. I’m sorry to kill the mystic properties we’ve all come to know and love from Instragram memes featuring samurais, lions and sharks.

In this case, it all has to do with the natural process of chemical neurotransmitter release we spoke about earlier.

Multiple studies on the efficacy of exercise as a treatment for depression have found that exercise can recreate some of the beneficial effects antidepressants have on the brain, including:

  • Serotonin absorption
  • Strengthened epinephrine activity
  • Stimulated nerve growth
  • Aid in preventing cell death in the hippocampus (1)

As we mentioned earlier, the more you rely on reuptake inhibitors the more you may need to up the dose in order to accommodate for the additional receptors. This is one of the many potential negative side effects antidepressant drugs have on an individual. While others include:

  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Agitation
  • Reduced libido and sexual dysfunction
  • Blurred Vision
  • And more (2)

Another more life threatening risk of SSRI use are the potential suicidal thoughts some users may experience while taking the medication. (3)

That being said, not everyone will suffer from these side effects, and if they do, intensities will vary from person to person.

It is important to consult your doctor if you feel you’re experiencing, or are at risk of experiencing, any of these issues.

In contrast, exercise has not been found to induce negative side effects to this degree and for this reason can be considered a more desirable alternative for some sufferers.

One study found that the positive benefits gained through exercise might also be long lasting. Subjects in the exercise group of the study experienced significant improvement in their depression, as well as improvements in anxiety and self-perception, compared to the control group. These improvements were found to continue well into the subsequent 12-month follow up examination. (4)

It has also been found that even though antidepressant medications worked faster to relieve symptoms of depression, exercise was just as effective on the whole. People who regularly perform rigorous exercise are more likely to suffer from less depressive symptoms in the long run compared to those simply using medication alone. (5)

With this information in mind, it’s important to understand exercise, sport and martial arts shouldn’t be looked at as just a cure. Prevention is the key in all ailments, and being active in martial arts or sports at an early age can help prevent the development of depression in the future.

Take note, I said “help prevent” and not “100% guaranteed.” We don’t live in an ideal world and I’m not a snake oil salesman. But, it is important to know the options available to you.

In my opinion, martial arts are one of the best things you can provide for your children. Right behind food, water, clothing and a roof over their heads.

One Norwegian study followed roughly 800 children for four years and examined them, at the two and four-year mark, to see how physical activity and roughhousing had affected symptoms of depression. As you can already guess, depressive symptoms had declined in the children regularly taking part in physically activity. (6)

Another thing interesting about the results of that study was, ultimately, there was no correlation found between sedentary lifestyle and developed depression, or even that depression lead to a sedentary lifestyle. (7)

Knowing this, you shouldn’t ban or shame your child for enjoying a video game or Snapchat face swap here and there. Finding the balance between technology and rigorous movement is the real key.


Part 3: Conclusion and Recommendations 

In conclusion, starting, restarting or following a journey in the martial arts is not only a confidence builder, a social activity, or a better practice of fitness; it can be a lifesaver.

There’s a reason people find salvation on the mats, and in other physical interests. I, myself, can back up the efficacy of a good night’s training with my friends as a relief of depression.

Don’t look at training with your partner as a way to vent aggression – don’t be a douchebag – roll with your partner to enjoy the process and release some of the things that may be clouding your mind.


Breathe, and do it again.

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