Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD on January 29, 2020 — Written by Jon Johnson
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.
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.
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.
Although depression is largely a mental health concern, it can also affect the body.
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.
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