Healthy behaviors—including regular exercise—can improve depression recovery success rates.

Exercise and Depression

Numerous studies have shown that exercise can alleviate depression and improve mood. One review of 14 studies, for example, found that aerobic exercise (walking or running three times a week for at least five weeks) was more effective than a placebo pill at relieving symptoms of mild to moderate depression and was just as effective as psychotherapy. The benefits of exercise in these studies lasted up to a year, especially among those who continued exercising. Exercise was also shown to be more cost effective than other treatments.

No one is sure exactly how exercise relieves depression. An increase in aerobic fitness may play a role but cannot be entirely responsible because non-aerobic exercise, such as weight training, can have similar effects. Some researchers have theorized that exercise, like most antidepressant medications, increases the activity of serotonin and/or norepinephrine. Exercise also stimulates the release of endorphins, which are hormones that reduce pain and can induce euphoria. Exercise may provide an outlet for pent-up anger and frustration as well. In addition, it may improve disturbed sleep, which can be a symptom of and an aggravating factor in depression. Finally, there are some reports that even brief exposure to natural daylight—as with a walk outside during the middle of the day or other outdoor exercise—helps people with SAD.

Some of the effects of exercise may have more to do with psychology than physiology. For instance, exercise may give people a sense of self-mastery or control over their depression or anxiety, which can lead to a reduction in symptoms.

To increase your level of physical activity, begin by making small changes in your daily life. Try parking your car further away from the store or mall to increase the amount of time you spend walking. When possible, take the stairs instead of an elevator. Also, try to decrease the amount of time you spend in sedentary activities, such as watching television. Your goal should be at least 30 minutes of moderately intense activity, such as swimming, bicycling, gardening, raking leaves, or brisk walking on most days of the week; however, any increase in activity can be beneficial.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 04 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 19 Jun 2013