Can exercise help relieve depression?

Exercise has significant emotional benefits: It helps ease depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders. Depression is a widespread, though often undiagnosed, problem among older people. Doctors have known for years that exercise, particularly when done in a social environment, helps relieve clinical depression. Exercise also reduces anxiety disorders and improves mental health in other ways. Even for those who have not been diagnosed as having a mental health problem, exercise is a known mood lifter, and those who exercise feel happier and more upbeat.

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Research out of Duke Medical Center found that regular exercise can be just as effective as medicine in treating some of the symptoms of depression. Individuals were divided into four groups: group-based exercise therapy, home-based exercise, antidepressant medication, and a placebo group. When assessed, the exercise therapy group did just as well as the medication group, and the home-based exercise group saw improvement as well, though to a lesser extent. All three treatment groups did better than the placebo group.

Joane Goodroe
Nursing Specialist

People being treated for depression may find exercise can pick up where medication leaves off. A study reviewed the effects of aerobic activity as a second treatment in patients who did not do well on their original anti-depressant medication. About 30 minutes worth of exercise four days a week proved to have an impact.

Exercise can improve overall health and reduce your risk for heart disease or diabetes.

The study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Kelly Traver

Just like antidepressants, exercise raises serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels. Exercise has a tremendous influence on your brain chemicals and your mood. A study showed that exercise was better than Zoloft, an antidepressant, in lifting mood and treating depression in the long term. There are times when medication is not only appropriate but also beneficial for treating mood.

People tend to look for the easier way out when it comes to most things, and it is certainly easier to swallow a pill than go out for a run. You do not, however, get all of the benefits from a pill those you would get if you took the extra time and energy to exercise. If you do take medication for your mood, exercise will make things much better. It will help lift your mood, raise your level of neurotransmitters, boost your BDNF level, stimulate brain growth, and speed remission while preventing future relapses. An increase in BDNF from exercise will help you increase the areas of higher thinking in your frontal cortex so that you can better control aberrant moods and thoughts.

Being active can help keep away the symptoms of major depression. If sleep problems or low energy interfere with your desire to be active, remind yourself that exercise is a fast-acting form of relief that can give your mood and self-esteem a boost. Being physically active boosts blood flow to your brain and moderates your brain chemical balance, upping levels of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins (three feel-good hormones) while reducing stress hormone levels. If you're new to exercise, take it slow. Set a doable goal, such as a short walk. Exercise outdoors if possible—especially if you're stressed—or try simple yoga poses. Don't beat yourself up if you can't do long or vigorous exercise at first. As you can, slowly add time and intensity to your workout.

Exercise is one of many tools that can bring relief to depression. Many studies have shown that exercise can fight mild to moderate depression because it:

  • Increases your sense of mastery, which helps if you don't feel in control of your life 
  • Increases your energy 
  • Increases self-esteem 
  • Provides a distraction from your worries 
  • Improves your health and body, which can help lift your mood 
  • Helps you get rid of built-up stress and frustration 
  • Helps you sleep better
Dr. Kathleen Hall
Preventive Medicine Specialist

Researchers at Duke University showed that regular exercise relieves major depression just as effectively as antidepressant medication. Dr. James Blumenthal's research shows that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week is sufficient for reducing the symptoms of depression. In his study of 10 months, exercise was a significant predictor of depression levels. People who engaged in 50 minutes of exercise a week had a 50 percent decrease in the likelihood of being depressed. Exercise releases "happy chemicals" into the body such as endorphins and serotonin. Exercise also helps regulate dopamine production, the neurotransmitter that helps cells communicate with each other.

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Walking can definitely help manage depression. Depression is an emotion that you can become addicted to the same way you can become addicted to a drug. Break free of this addiction by making it a habit to change your mind-set and thought patterns when you feel depression creeping into your psyche.

Next time you are feeling depressed try going for a walk, preferably outside in a quiet, beautiful setting. The fresh air, sunlight and sights and sounds of nature will help alleviate your mind of the incessant negative thought flows that contribute to depression. Open your senses to the beauty that surrounds you and be in the present moment. This will help your mind from wandering into past or future events that may be causing your depression. Additionally, walking will cause your body to release 'feel good' endorphin's that will help to change your mood from depressed to happy.  

Dr. Sudeepta Varma, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)
Exercise has many important benefits for the treatment of depression; it has many positive impacts on both our physical and mental health. Watch as I discuss why exercise is an important tool in fighting depression.
Dr. Tarique D. Perera, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

Exercise can be very beneficial in treating depression. In particular, aerobic exercise may help the brain make new brain cells to treat depression. In this video, Tarique Perera, MD, a psychiatrist with Contemporary Care of Connecticut, explains.

Dr. Dawn Marcus

Physical activity improves our mental health. Researchers at the University of Queensland showed that exercising at least 60 minutes per week resulted in a 30-40 percent reduced risk for having emotional distress and depression.

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Aerobic exercise particularly for 30 minutes or more can help lighten one's mood because endorphins, the body's natural mood enhancers, are released and create a feeling of well being.

I personally believe that any type of exercise can help one manage their depression, if they chose to let it. When we exercise our mind releases endporphins, which are neurons in the brain that bring about feelings of happiness, joy, and accomplishment. This is why after exercising you hear so many people talk about how great they feel, the endorphins running through their blood stream make them feel more awake and energized bringing on a sense of empowerment.

When one is feeling down and out going for a nice long walk can definetly help you manage those negative feelings. Getting out of the house and changing your environment can help you think things through and clear your mind. Also taking the time out of your day just for you is important to your overall health and happiness.

Walking can definitely help you manage your depression. It is not only great for the body but also great for the mind. Again when you exercise you create neurons that make you feel happy, creating these neurons for yourself on a regular basis will help you learn how you can create happiness and joy for yourself, with your own two feet!

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

If you haven’t exercised in a while, the thought of slipping into a pair of tight pants and a sports bra might seem depressing in itself. Exercise, however, has been shown to be more effective than many antidepressants in reducing major depression. And it has the same kind of effect on less serious mood issues, too. Part of that may be attributed to the endorphin effect of exercise; we may also feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment that comes with completing an exercise program.

A simple walk will do, but doing something that really elevates your heart rate and gets your sweat flowing will have a major payoff when you’re finished. Sometimes, action has to come before motivation, and depressed folks need to act to prime their motivational engine.

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Dr. Marsha Lucas
Psychology Specialist

Exercise and a healthy diet are key elements in any depression treatment program, says neurospychologist Marsha Lucas, PhD. In this WisePatient video, she explains how healthy lifestyle strategies help boost mood.

Jonathan Penney
Fitness Specialist

Hopefully if you are feeling depressed you will be able to find a way to snap out of that depression and be happy once again! One great way to assist will be to walk or take part in some form of exercise.

If you choose to walk then try to find an area that is quite, take in all the sounds of natures, and take slow controlled breaths. If an area such as this will not be available then try to find some calming music and go out for your walk. Regardless, you should be able to take full advantage of your walk with deep breath. Focusing on breathing will help decrease your heart rate and help relax your body to bring your out of depression.

Dr. Vonda Wright, MD
Orthopedic Surgeon

In a landmark study out of Duke University, Blumenthal and colleagues tested the idea that exercise was as effective as antidepressants for treating depression. The subjects either received antidepressant medication alone, exercise alone, or a combination of both. The depression of all three groups improved significantly, and the researchers concluded that exercise was as effective as medication in the treatment of depression and continued to be effective for more than six months.

The jury is still out as to the complete pathway between the body and mood. The body-bliss connection has to do not only with the chemicals released during activity but the chemical and physical pathways they travel in the brain. While scientists work hard to figure it all out, my advice—and the advice of many other experts—is just give it a try. Feeling good is just down the road.

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Dr. John Preston, PsyD
Psychology Specialist

All types of exercise can be beneficial for depression. Research has demonstrated that benefits accrue from strength training, aerobic exercise and flexibility training, but any type of regular exercise can help. What’s important is for you to get out and move your body, not what type of exercise you do.

Exercise causes your body to release endorphins, which are natural chemicals that help you feel better and more energetic. Endorphins reduce the brain’s perception of pain. They also act as a sedative, which is why getting regular exercise can help if you’re experiencing sleep difficulties. Some researchers believe that exercise may also increase the brain’s ability to produce serotonin and dopamine, which are known to help improve mood.

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A number of studies show that exercise can reduce depression—either as an alternative to other types of treatment, or in addition to them. And you don't have to be a runner or gym fanatic to reap the benefit. You can achieve positive mood effects from far less strenuous physical activities. Adding mild movement to a sedentary life can reduce your depressive symptoms even if your fitness level remains unchanged. What's more, physical activity lessens depression regardless of your pre-existing health conditions and may insulate you against future depressive symptoms.

Regular exercise has been shown in numerous studies to be as effective as or more effective than antidepressants and therapy in improving mild to moderate depression. Exercise improves mood and is most effective when performed regularly. It has been shown to decrease resting heart rate, reduce blood pressure, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, all of which help to decrease the physiological causes of stress in the body. Exercise has also been shown to release endorphins and catecholamines, which are “feel good” hormones that also help reduce stress and increase feelings of well-being.

Regular exercise can be as little as 20 – 30 minutes per day of increased physical activity. There is no magic number at which stress is reduced

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.