Many mental health professionals consider alternative therapies such as exercise part of a comprehensive treatment program for depression.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that physical exercise has a protective role on the brain and may help prevent depression symptoms.

However, this is not always the case, and more research is necessary to clarify the role it plays.

In this article, learn about how exercise affects the symptoms of depression, as well as its other effects.

a woman running with her dog as part of her routine to increase fitness and treat depressionShare on Pinterest
Exercise may help improve a person’s mood.

Depression is a common mental health condition, affecting more than 264 million people around the globe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The condition can cause lasting feelings of sadness and emptiness, a lack of energy, and a decreased ability to concentrate. For these reasons, depression can have a major impact on quality of life.

Although some pharmacological treatments may help treat depression, finding natural ways to relieve the symptoms is important for many people with depression.

One meta-analysis in the Journal of Psychiatric Research focused on the effects of exercise on depression.

The researchers found that overall, exercise was an evidence-based treatment for depression. Regular moderate intensity aerobic exercise had a significant antidepressant effect in people with depression and major depressive disorder.

Also, the researchers behind a 2018 study found that exercise leads to a 22% higher likelihood of remission from depression compared with a person’s usual treatment.

They also found that exercise as a treatment for depression had an 18% dropout rate, and that the participants tolerated it relatively well.

Regular pharmacological treatments for depression can cause negative side effects, so exercise may be a good option for people who cannot take certain drugs — such as pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and adolescents — and those who find these effects intolerable.

Exercise also appears to play a role in relieving some of the core symptoms of depression, such as by:

  • improving mood
  • increasing pleasure in life
  • reducing thoughts of suicide

Also, people who engage in regular physical exercise have a reduced risk of depressive episodes, meaning that exercise may help prevent an episode before it occurs.

However, this is not a guarantee, and the relationship between depression and exercise is not clear-cut.

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for healthy aging, visit our dedicated hub.

Depression itself affects both physical and mental health. Similarly, exercise may help with the symptoms of depression because of the way it impacts both the body and the brain.

The sections below describe some other links between depression and exercise.

Physical health

Although depression is largely a mental health concern, it can also affect the body.

For example, a study in the journal Circulation notes that depression may make young people and adults more likely to experience atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.

It is also associated with:

Although depression can have a significant impact on the body, there is some evidence to suggest that exercise can reverse these effects by:

  • regulating appetite hormones
  • increasing metabolism
  • improving sleep quality and duration
  • improving the body’s response to stress
  • delaying the aging of the immune system
  • reducing inflammatory responses

Also, exercise can improve circulation and strengthen the cardiovascular system, which may be more impacted in people with depression.

Learn about these and some other physical effects of depression here.

Life span

Research in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry notes that people with major depression have about a 10 year shorter life span than people without depression. Importantly, this is after excluding deaths by suicide, meaning that other physical and mental factors can affect their life span.

For example, depression may increase the risk of physical conditions or make any conditions a person has worse.

Conversely, exercise can increase a person’s chances of living longer. It can also improve older adults’ ability to perform daily activities and prevent dangerous falls.

Quality of life

Depression can also reduce a person’s quality of life and lead to changes in their lifestyle choices.

Researchers note that people with depression tend to be less physically active than people without the condition.

They also found that people with depression tend to have higher rates of tobacco and alcohol use, poorer nutrition, and a higher chance of overweight.

There may also be a bidirectional link between these factors, meaning that although depression can make these factors worse, these individual factors may also impact depression.

What counts as regular exercise may vary based on individual health and energy levels. Additionally, there is no set effective amount of exercise that will produce a result in people with depression.

That said, some studies support three exercise sessions per week for 12–24 weeks, which tends to result in a significant reduction in the severity of depression symptoms.

There also appears to be an increased benefit for people who engage in aerobic exercise in groups and with an instructor. Examples include yoga, pilates, and spin class.

Different people are comfortable with different types and levels of exercise. Starting with three 15–30 minute sessions each week may help get the body moving and work toward longer or more intense sessions.

Although some health professionals claim that exercise can form part of a holistic treatment for depression, some research suggests that this is not always the case.

For instance, a recent study in the Journal of American College Health suggests that exercise may have different effects in different sexes.

The study analyzed the exercise levels, depression levels, and sleep habits of 1,146 college students.

The researchers found that there was a link between exercise and depression in males, but that no amount of regular exercise appeared to have any influence on depression levels in females.

These results contradict some previous research, so more research will be necessary to help expand on these findings either way.

This does not automatically mean that females with depression will not benefit from exercise, as much of the research surrounding depression and exercise does include both sexes.

For example, one 2017 study looked specifically at the effects of resistance training on anxiety and depression in middle-aged women.

The study authors found that participants who exercised three times per week had improved mental health and lower rates of depression and anxiety.

Anyone concerned about their symptoms or current treatment plan can speak to a doctor.

For the most part, it can help to add an exercise routine to a treatment regimen. Although many doctors may focus on pharmacological treatments for depression, supportive therapies such as exercise can help.

However, there may be times when doctors do not recommend exercise. Older adults and those with disabilities or chronic conditions may not be able to do certain types of exercise safely.

In other cases, medications or other health conditions may affect how much a person can exercise. People with eating disorders and similar conditions should always speak with a medical professional before starting a new exercise routine.

Anyone considering using exercise as a therapy for depression should ask their doctor if they have any personal risks to consider before taking on a workout routine.

By working with a doctor, many people can find an exercise program that works for them.

There is some evidence to suggest that exercise improves depression and depression symptoms, including in people with major depressive disorder.

This is not always the case, however, and more research needs to confirm the effect that exercise may have.

Anyone looking to add exercise to their depression treatment plan should talk to their doctor first.