Fortunately, you don't have to be a long-distance runner to reap the rewards of exercise for depression. Simply following the guidelines of the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association should prove effective for mild to moderate depression. For example, a 2005 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that aerobic exercise that conformed to official recommendations was effective for major depression, while less exercise was comparable to a placebo effect.

Exercise recommendations for depression are as follows:

  • Do moderately intense aerobic activity 30 minutes a day, five days a week or vigorously intense aerobic activity 20 minutes a day, three days a week.
  • Do eight to 10 strength-training exercises, eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise twice a week (10 to 15 repetitions if you are over age 65 or are over age 50 with a chronic health condition).

Moderate-intensity exercise means that you are exerting yourself enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat but still able to carry on a conversation. Moderate-intensity activities include walking briskly, water aerobics, ballroom dancing, and gardening. Vigorous activity means that you can only say a few words before pausing for breath; activities include jogging or running, swimming laps, jumping rope, or hiking uphill.

Getting Started with Exercise and Staying Motivated

People over age 65 and those with chronic health conditions should always talk to their doctor before starting an exercise program. But regardless of your age or whether or not you have other conditions, it's always a good idea to have a discussion with your doctor as well as your mental health provider about the activity level most suitable for you and how to fit exercise into your overall treatment plan.

We realize that just finding the will to get out of bed, let alone exercise, can seem like a monumental task when you're depressed and that feeling guilty about not exercising might actually worsen your mood. So here are some tips on how you can realistically get started and stay motivated:

Choose wisely. You're much more likely to stick with an exercise program if you do something that you enjoy (or once enjoyed) and can reasonably fit into your life. Another thing to consider is your budget. Can you afford a personal trainer or a class? If not, maybe there's a park or mall nearby, and all you'll need to invest in is a pair of walking shoes.

Start small. If you're really struggling with inertia, don't add to your burden by thinking in all-or- nothing terms. It's possible that simply lacing up your sneakers and stepping outside the house or walking to the mailbox are all you can do for now. Take it slowly, maybe going for a walk around the block the next time and building from there. Remember that some exercise is better than none at all.

Enlist others. The tendency to isolate one's self is part of being depressed, but it may be too much of a challenge to exercise alone. Consider joining a class or a walking group, or ask a friend to accompany you. The social aspect may improve your mood, and you're likely to be more motivated if someone's counting on you to show up.

Be in the moment. Try to use an exercise session as an opportunity to free yourself from the negative thoughts and rumination that go with depression. If you're outside, notice the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Talk with your exercise partner if you have one or just concentrate on how your body feels. You might even want to keep a log or journal to remind yourself that exercise makes you feel better.

The Bottom Line on Exercise for Depression

It may feel awkward at first, but after a while exercising will become second nature and something you may even look forward to. When coping with depression, every physical step you take is a step in the right direction.

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

Published: 06 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 21 Aug 2013