Home » Using Exercise to Help Treat Depression

There are still misunderstandings and myths around topics that relate to mental health. For example, a full moon does not make people act more erratic. Controlled studies have never been able to show consistently that the full moon has any effect on human behavior.

However, the saying that exercise makes a person feel better holds some truth. There is evidence that exercise can help with the treatment of depression.

Having some level of stress and anxiety is a normal part of life. Yet, more severe levels of anxiety can lead to depression and other anxiety disorders. In fact, these disorders affect over 40 million adults which makes it one of the most common psychiatric illnesses in the United States. Studies have found that the benefits of exercise may well extend beyond stress relief and physical fitness, and can help to improve depression-related mental health conditions.

How Does Exercise Help?

The physical activity from exercise creates many positive health benefits. These positives benefits include increased protection from some diseases, better sleep patterns and lower blood pressure. Higher-intensity exercises make the human body release endorphins that promote positive feelings. However, low-intensity exercising also carries benefits.

Low-intensity exercises that are sustained over time helps to promote nerve cell growth in the human brain. This, in turn, helps the brain generate new nerve connections.

Finding the Right Exercise:

Choosing the right exercise to help treat depression is a great idea for people struggling with the symptoms of depression. Beyond the production of endorphins and new nerve cell growth, many types of exercise provide a degree of social interaction and structure. Yet, there are a few things to consider when picking an exercise to help treat or prevent depression: scheduling and enjoyment.

  • Scheduling: People should try to plan and schedule their exercise programs ahead of time. If they wait until they feel inspired, they might not actually exercise. This is particularly true if individuals are struggling with depression.
  • Enjoyment: Naturally, it is easier for people to maintain a workout regimen if they enjoy what they are doing. There are many different ways to achieve a good workout. Find one that best fits your needs, personality and body type. When people choose an exercise that they enjoy, there is a better chance that they will stick with it and experience positive results.
  • Gradual: Workouts should not be so demanding that people quit after two or three workouts. If 45 minutes of something is too much, cut back to 30 or 20 minutes. The goal is to create a long-term improvement in one’s mental (and physical) health. A degree of patience is needed in order to experience results.

Good Exercises for the Treating/Preventing Depression:

There are no perfect exercises, but there are a few types of workouts that people should keep in mind. Here are three general exercises that people should keep in mind.

Aerobic Exercise:

Activities that elevate a person’s heart rate are great. Aerobic activities like running are so well-known for their impact on a person’s mode that the term runner’s high is famous. This point is illustrated by data from the UK, where researchers examined data from 24 studies from a total of 4,111 participants living with chronic illness and symptoms of depression. All of these smaller studies randomly assigned some people to do aerobic exercise, while other participants received medical care.

Participants who had exercised at least two to three times a week were more likely to see a reduction in depression symptoms versus people who did no aerobic exercise. There was even a more pronounced positive effect when the participants performed aerobic exercise four to five times a week. However, the difference between the two aerobic groups was too small to rule out the possibility that it was due to chance.

People should remember that if running is too hard on their joints, other cardiovascular activities can be substituted. For example, bicycling provides a good burst of aerobic exercise, but without the impact on ankles, knees and hips.

Strength / Resistance Training:

Increasingly doctors are reporting the benefits of weightlifting for people of all ages. A meta-analysis of 33 randomized, controlled clinical trials on depression and strength training. The studies included both males and females of varying ages, with a total of 1877 people participating in total.

The research found that strength or resistance training significantly reduced the incidence of depression. It did not matter whether the participants had met a clinical cutoff for depression at the beginning of a study. Overall, the research found that participants who engaged in strength training type exercises were less likely to feel depressed at the study’s conclusion.

The results were noticeable even after researchers controlled the participants for age, gender or improvements in muscle mass. This means that people who saw few physical changes from strength training still tended to experience improvements in mood.

Yoga as an exercise:

Studies have shown that yoga is a good exercise for depression treatment. One study from the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that breathing-based yoga, improved symptoms of anxiety and depression in patients with major depressive disorder (MDD).

Other studies have found that regular yoga practice can help with stress and pain management. These studies were small, but their results are promising. Larger, more comprehensive research is needed in order to better understand the potential health benefits from regular yoga practice.


People should visit an experienced mental health provider if they are struggling with feelings of depression. The use of exercise, when combined with professional therapy, is one of the best ways for people to achieve permanent results. For more information on this topic or other mental health questions, please contact Emerald Psychiatry & TMS Center. They can be reached by email or by phone at (614) 580-6917.

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Contributor: ABCS RCM