Exercise: Can it help to treat depression?

Published Jan 31, 2022 • By Courtney Johnson

1 in 10 adults in the United States is living with depression, and regimens of antidepressant medications are the standard course of treatment. However, pharmaceutical treatments are far from the only solution! 

Research in recent years has shown that exercise is also an effective treatment option when it comes to mental health conditions.  

How does exercise benefit our mental health? What is the link between exercise and depression?  

We explain it all on Carenity! 

Exercise: Can it help to treat depression?

When you have a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, exercise can seem like the last thing you want to do. But, if you can find motivation, physical activity can make a big difference to your mental health! 

Exercise has been proven to help prevent and improve a variety of health conditions, including arthritis, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Research has also shown that being active regularly can decrease anxiety and depressive symptoms, improve sleep, and lower stress

While both pharmaceutical treatments and psychotherapy are the most common and effective methods for treating depression, research in recent years supports that lifestyle interventions like physical activity can also be an effective tool in depression management. 

How can exercise help depression? 

Exercise has a number of psychological benefits. When we exercise, the body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in our brain that reduce perception of pain. They also trigger a positive feeling throughout the body, similar to that triggered by morphine.  

For example, you may have heard long-distance runners describe a euphoric feeling after running called “runner’s high,” this is a real-life illustration of endorphins in action! This “high” can also be accompanied by a feeling of energy and positive outlook

Endorphins also act as analgesics, meaning that they reduce the perception of pain. The neuron receptors in the brain that endorphins bind to are the same that bind to certain pain medications. But, unlike with morphine, the activation of these receptors by endorphins over time does not trigger dependence or addiction

Physical activity also contributes to mental well-being in the following ways: 

  • Exercise improves physical health and increases self-confidence: Engaging in regular physical activity can improve our physical health by lowering the risk of developing heart disease, managing blood sugar, lowering blood pressure, and losing or maintaining a healthy body weight. These steps taken to improve one’s health can increase confidence as you take an active role in your health! 
  • Exercise encourages social interaction: Joining a walking or running club, taking a group class, or playing a recreational sport gives ample opportunity for social interaction, which can reduce feelings of isolation, a key factor in improving depressive symptoms. 
  • Exercise provides a mental outlet: Exercise can be another form of self-care, giving you the time and space to quiet the mind and focus on yourself. It can help distance yourself from negative thought patterns or anxiety. 
  • Exercise provides a healthy coping mechanism: When you’re dealing with depression, it’s not uncommon to turn to unhealthy coping strategies such as social withdrawal or unsafe use of alcohol, drugs, or even food. Physical activity is a positive way to channel emotions or stress. 

What is the link between exercise and depression? 

As mentioned earlier, though it is by no means a cure for depression, exercise plays an important role in symptoms management, alongside medication and psychotherapy.  

In 2018, a meta-analysis published in the JAMA Psychiatry medical journal found that resistance exercises (lifting weights) markedly reduced depressive symptoms in adults. The study’s authors established that adults with mild to moderate depression experienced a significant reduction in depressive symptoms when they engage in resistance training for two or more days a week, compared to patients who did not lift weights.  

Another 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry demonstrated that physical activity results in a greater reduction of depression symptoms, as well as greater improvements in cognitive function and sleep quality. Of the participants in the study, 75% showed either a complete remission of depression symptoms or a therapeutic response compared to 25% of who did not exercise. 

Finally, researchers have also begun to examine the issue from a different lens – from the correlation between regular physical activity and decreased depressive symptoms to the link between low levels of physical activity and higher depression. 

For example, a 2020 study in BMC Medicine showed that people with low muscular and aerobic fitness levels are almost twice as likely to experience depression.  

These findings and more in recent years have led the medical community to conclude that exercise as a complementary treatment to conventional antidepressant medications and psychotherapy are a key tool in treating depression and can even improve the efficacy of such treatments. 

What types of exercise are better for depression?  

Doctors recommend any form of exercise for depression. If you need some inspiration, some typical moderate forms of exercise include: 

  • Walking 
  • Biking 
  • Dancing 
  • Housework (especially sweeping, mopping, or vacuuming) 
  • Gardening and yard work (especially mowing or raking) 
  • Low-impact aerobics 
  • Swimming 
  • Yoga or Pilates 
  • Tennis 
  • Jogging at a moderate pace 
  • Golf (walking instead of using a cart) 

Seeing that strong social connections and support are important for those living with depression, you may want to consider joining a group exercise class or exercising with a friend or partner.  

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults should aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular or aerobic exercise per week, plus two days of strengthening exercises targeting the major muscle groups. 

More simply, 150 minutes each week breaks down into five days of 30-minute cardio sessions, with two days of muscle strengthening sessions

How to get started? 

It can be overwhelming when you’re trying to get back into a regular exercise routine. Here are a few tips to help you on your journey: 

  • Find your reason why: Ask yourself “Why am I doing this?”. What are you hoping to achieve by getting active? Finding your purpose will help you to keep your motivation when the going gets tough. 
  • Set realistic goals: When it comes to exercise, setting yourself small, achievable, and timely goals can really be helpful in keeping you going. To start, set yourself a goal of exercising two or three days a week for two weeks. Once you’ve reached this goal, add on another day. Even the smallest achievement is a big step towards improving your mental and physical health! 
  • Find a friend: Working out with a friend can not only be more fun, but it can also keep us accountable! Find a workout partner and commit to three days a week to meet for a workout session. Set the time and place and remind each other with calls or texts. There is strength in numbers! 
  • Try the 10x3 method: When you have a busy schedule, fitting in a 30-minute period for exercise can seem impossible. Why not break it down into three shorter sessions? Exercise is still beneficial if done in shorter stints throughout the day. For example, you could take a 10-minute walk in the morning, another 10-minute walk at lunch, and finish the day with a 10-minute walk after dinner!  
  • Find what works for you: As we’ve tried to illustrate, exercise is so much more than physical. It can be a time to focus on yourself and clear your mind, so you might as well enjoy it! Don’t be afraid to try different types of exercise and see what works – or doesn’t work – for you. Try different times of day, different settings, alone, with friends, until you find what gets you excited to keep moving! 

Regular physical activity can do wonders for your physical and mental health. Though research has proven its benefits and its ability to reduce depressive symptoms in mild to moderate depression, it is still not a replacement for medical treatment or therapy.  

Make sure to talk to your doctor to find out if exercise is a good complementary option for you. 

Was this article helpful to you?  
Give it a like and share your thoughts and questions with the community in the comments below!  
Take care! 

avatar Courtney Johnson

Author: Courtney Johnson, Health Writer

Courtney is a content creator at Carenity and focuses on writing health articles. She is particularly passionate about exploring the topics of nutrition, well-being, and psychology.

Courtney holds a double... >> Learn more

1 comment

on 2/4/22

Thx for article. Most interesting. I think exercise does help mental health. My 2 cents worth. I'm too exhausted w/ sleep apnea to exercise at all. When at work, I do walk mail around hospital. Anyone else have thoughts?

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