What Is the Link Between Exercise and Depression?

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Exercise is one of the best and most affordable ways to improve your overall well-being. Plus, the positive link between physical activity and mood is impressive.

From a decrease in depressive and anxiety symptoms to better sleep and less stress, participating in a regular exercise program has some major perks. 

And while we’ve known for years that treatment approaches such as psychotherapy and medication are effective in treating depression, research over the last decade shows that lifestyle interventions like exercise can also reduce depressive symptoms and improve your overall mood. 

How Exercise May Help Depression 

Enhancing your overall mental health is one of the many benefits of exercise. More specifically, physical activity can enhance mood, boost energy levels, and help you sleep better. Here are some other ways fitness improves psychological well-being:

  • Exercise improves your health and boosts confidence: Participating in a regular exercise program can improve your physical health and lower your risk of developing coronary heart disease, lower blood pressure, manage blood sugar, and lose or maintain a healthy body weight. These improvements can lead to a boost in confidence as you feel better about your overall health.
  • Exercise distracts the mind: Engaging in regular exercise may also quiet the mind, which allows you to get away from the negative cycle of worries and depressive thoughts. 
  • Exercise promotes social interaction: Taking a group class, joining a running club, or playing a recreational sport gives you the opportunity for social interaction and reduces feelings of isolation, both critical factors in decreasing depressive symptoms.
  • Exercise releases your body’s feel-good chemicals: When you exercise, your body releases neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin that help give your mood a natural boost. 
  • Exercise gives you a healthy coping mechanism: It’s not uncommon to develop unhealthy ways of coping with emotional pain and depressive symptoms. Using food or alcohol or withdrawing and isolating yourself from others are just a few examples. Replacing one of these with something positive like exercise can help you develop new coping strategies

The Link Between Exercise and Depression 

Although not a cure for depression, exercise certainly plays a role in managing symptoms, along with psychotherapy and medication. A 2018 meta-analysis published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that resistance exercise (lifting weights) significantly reduced the symptoms of depression in adults.

More specifically, the study’s authors found that people with mild to moderate depression saw a significant reduction in symptoms when they performed resistance training two or more days a week, compared with people who did not lift weights. Participants also experienced a mood boost after working out. 

Another 2016 meta-analysis in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, when performed regularly, supports the claim that exercise can be an evidenced-based part of treatment for depression. 

Finally, a 2018 study in Frontiers in Psychiatry showed that exercise resulted in a greater reduction in depression symptoms, greater improvements in sleep quality and cognitive function.

Of the participants, 75% showed either a therapeutic response or complete remission of symptoms compared to 25% who did not exercise.

Researchers concluded that exercise as an add-on to conventional antidepressant therapies improved the efficacy of other treatment options such as antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy.

How Low Levels of Exercise Contribute to Depression 

The correlation between regular exercise and a decrease in depression symptoms has been studied and supported for years. But recently, a link between low fitness levels and higher depression has caused researchers to take a second look at the role exercise plays in mental health. 

A 2020 study published in BMC Medicine found that people with low aerobic and muscular fitness levels are nearly twice as likely to experience depression. The findings indicate a dose-response relationship with low and medium cardiorespiratory fitness and grip strength associated with higher odds of depression and anxiety. 

Based on the results, researchers believe that “fitness could be an objectively measurable indicator and a modifiable risk factor for common mental disorders in the population.”

How Much Exercise Is Enough? 

According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should aim for a minimum of 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity cardiovascular or aerobic exercise such as jogging, walking, bike riding, or swimming. Plus, two days of strengthening exercises targeting the major muscle groups. 

Broken down, 150 minutes each week, equates to five days of 30-minute cardio sessions. Add in two days of resistance training, and you have a solid fitness routine. 

Tips For Getting Started

Find Your “Why”

If you’re struggling to get started, the first thing you need to do is define your “why,” which starts with one question: “Why am I doing this?” One of the reasons people quit an exercise program is due to a lack of interest. If you have no purpose or lack incentive, then sticking with your plan when things get tough is unlikely to happen. 

Set Realistic Goals

When it comes to fitness, bite-size goals often work best. Set a few mini-goals that you can achieve within a short amount of time. For example, exercising three days each week for two weeks. Once you meet this goal, add two more days. Remember, any positive change will make a difference.

Try the 3x10 Rule

If fitting in a 30-minute block of time for exercise does not seem feasible, why not break it up into smaller chunks? You can still benefit from fitness if you do shorter bouts throughout the day.

For example, take a 10-minute walk in the morning, another 10-minute walk at lunch, and finish the day off with a 10-minute walk before dinner.

Swap out one of the walks for yoga, resistance training, or core work, and you have a full-body workout. 

Recruit a Friend

If accountability and social interaction will help you stay motivated, then consider recruiting a friend. Commit to three days a week to meet for a workout. Set the time, date, and location, and give each other reminder calls and texts. Even setting up a "virtual workout date" can be helpful.

Download an App

There are hundreds of fitness apps with workouts ranging from Pilates and yoga to cardio and resistance training. Several offer free trials so you can try before you buy. Download two or three to find the right one for you. 

Make Exercise Work For You

Physical activity involves so much more than going to the gym or hopping on a treadmill. Finding what you like to do helps with adherence and better mental health outcomes.

To maximize success, try different times of the day. Download an app or take a class at the gym. Try exercising alone or with friends. Plug into music or go for a run and tune into nature. Although it may take some trial and error, keep experimenting until you find what works best for you. 

A Word From Verywell

Regular exercise does wonders for both your physical and mental health. Although research shows that it can help reduce depressive symptoms, especially in mild to moderate depression, it is by no means a replacement for other treatments like therapy or medication. Make sure to talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. 

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  1. Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Hallgren M, Meyer JD, Lyons M, Herring MP. Association of efficacy of resistance exercise training with depressive symptoms: meta-analysis and meta-regression analysis of randomized clinical trials. JAMA Psychiatry. 2018;75(6):566.

  2. Schuch FB, Vancampfort D, Richards J, Rosenbaum S, Ward PB, Stubbs B. Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2016;77:42-51

  3. Gourgouvelis J, Yielder P, Clarke ST, Behbahani H, Murphy BA. Exercise leads to better clinical outcomes in those receiving medication plus cognitive behavioral therapy for major depressive disorder. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9.

  4. Kandola AA, Osborn DPJ, Stubbs B, Choi KW, Hayes JF. Individual and combined associations between cardiorespiratory fitness and grip strength with common mental disorders: a prospective cohort study in the UK Biobank. BMC Medicine. 2020;18(1):303.

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd Edition. 2018.