Reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
For the millions of Americans suffering annually from depression, finding adequate treatment for depression can seem overwhelming. Some folks try therapy, others try medication, others try lifestyle changes, and some, still, try a combination of everything.
The science and research behind exercise and depression is complex and relatively well-studied, but there’s a reason why people experiencing depression are encouraged to hit the gym or go for a walk.
But just how solid is exercise as a means of treating depression? Does the research on its efficacy back up what everyone seems to say about it? Is this popular relationship rooted in harmony or urban legend?
Well, let’s dig deep.
Let’s first break down what exactly depression is.
After all, there’s a difference between simply having a bad day in which you’re feeling sad and experiencing actual depression.
Sadness is as common an emotional experience as joy or boredom.
Sadness can come from a number of sources and provocations. You may be having a bad day or experiencing a longing for something or someone you love. Maybe, even, you’re going through a life transition (new job, new home) that brings about feelings of sadness.
All of this is normal.
Sadness can even spark some emotional and behavioral reactions from us that we don’t normally resort to. Crying more often than usual, experiencing sleep problems, lacking motivation and appetite fluctuations (among other things) are all reactions that can indicate you’re feeling sad.
While these reactions may not be unusual, they should still be noticed, respected and acted upon with care and consideration. For more read our guide to sadness vs depression.
Depression is a mental illness and a mood disorder. Depression affects our thoughts and feelings, and it can influence the most seemingly mundane elements of our lives: how well or often we eat, whether we communicate with our loved ones, how frequently we exercise and if we leave the house.
One major difference between depression and sadness is the symptoms of depression need to be persistently present for at least two weeks for a formal diagnosis to be made — even though both can affect quality of life.
Since depression is such a dynamic mental illness and has many manifestations, here’s a list of some of depression’s most common symptoms. You’ll find there’s some crossover between symptoms of depression and symptoms of everyday sadness:
Persistent feelings of sadness
Feelings of emptiness
Feelings of guilt, helplessness, worthlessness
Not enjoying one’s usual sources of pleasure, be they hobbies or interactions with loved ones
Difficulty absorbing information
Sleep problems — these can manifest in difficulties falling or asleep or in difficulties waking up
Physical symptoms, such as aches and pains
Headache, cramps and problems digesting food
Change in appetite
Fatigue, a decreased energy about you that isn’t normal
Making the topic of depression more complex, it’s important we break down an understanding of the types of depression that are out there.
Here’s a basic list of the most common forms of depression:
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is considered one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S. and receiving a clinical diagnosis for it involves feeling its symptoms — which include things like loss of interest in pleasure or daily activities, depressed mood, eating and sleep issues, etc. — for at least two weeks.
Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia) is a depressed mood that can last up to two years. The severity of one’s depression can range in severity. Sometimes, a person with persistent depressive disorder has severe depression, while other times, their depression wanes and is far milder.
Psychotic Depression occurs when someone experiences psychosis. Psychosis is a mental health condition in which someone loses touch with reality. When someone has psychotic depression, they have a severe form of depression on top of experiencing psychosis.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression that typically occurs in the winter months, but can also occur during any seasonal change. When the skies begin to darken, the weather cools and you're just not used to not having as much sunlight as you’d want, it turns out your mood can dampen — worsen, even, to the point of depression.
Bipolar Disorder occurs when someone experiences extremely low moods, but then the low moods are buttressed by extreme highs — highs that professionals characterize as mania. The underlying characteristics of the mania can be seen in one’s irritability, restlessness or euphoria.
In therapeutic settings, physical activity is actually considered a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a popular form of therapy in treatment for depression.
Now, it’s important to understand that physical exercise for depression is not a solution or cure for depression, regardless of its numerous mental health benefits. Instead, understand that the effects of exercise are helpful tools in the proverbial toolbox. Think of exercise and the effects of exercise as ways of alleviating the symptoms of depression, but not curing depression entirely.
That said, general movement of the body can be a fantastic way to lessen the symptoms of depression.
In one study, researchers found that simply walking 20 to 40 minutes per day three times a week for six weeks (sounds like pretty moderate intensity, right?) yielded positive net benefits in improving mental health.
Another study on physical activity and regular exercise yielded similar results: that the benefits of exercising can have long-lasting positive effects on one’s depressive symptoms.
Among the people that participated in the study correlating physical exercise and depression alleviation, researchers found that the participants didn’t just report reduced symptoms of depression during the time in which they exercised, but twelve weeks after the study concluded.
Not just that — those participants reported lesser symptoms of depression, as well as greater senses of self-image, twelve months after the study’s conclusion.
It turns out not just physical exercise — but a consistent exercise routine — is its own form of psychological therapy.
Not bad, huh?
Here’s one more kicker: in another clinical trial, researchers found that exercise was just as effective an antidepressant as antidepressants themselves, even though the medications were found to initially have a more rapid response.
While there are a few conflicting studies as to exercise’s efficacy, particularly when compared to the efficacy of antidepressant medication, the data is very encouraging.
In a majority of studies that examine whether exercise can improve the state of one’s mental health, walking and running are often the exercises studied.
However, other studies have observed the benefits of anaerobic exercise, and those studies found that anaerobic exercise boosts one’s mental health and reduces one’s symptoms of depression.
So the question is: what are aerobic and anaerobic exercises?
When you practice aerobic exercise, your body is powering itself differently.
Oxygen exertion factors into what classifies aerobic exercise versus anaerobic exercise. However, another critical factor in making aerobic exercise unique is that fat and glucose provide your body with energy.
In technical terms, running and walking fall under the umbrella called aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is anything from dancing and running to walking and bike riding.
Aerobic exercise also improves your metabolic function, strengthens your heart health to prevent future heart disease, increases your HDL — or “good cholesterol” — and, as we said, works to boost your mental health.
The primary effect of anaerobic exercise is to build muscle strength and muscle mass.
We typically associate anaerobic exercise as exercises involving weight training.
When you practice anaerobic exercise, your buddy pulls glycogen (which is a kind of glucose) from your muscles. The reason your body pulls glycogen from your muscles during anaerobic activity is that the glycogen acts as fuel.
While there aren’t a whole lot of studies out there exploring the efficacy of aerobic vs anaerobic exercise in the battle against depression, studies that have distinguished between the two have concluded they’re both useful.
While we’ve provided you with the broader umbrella terms for kinds of exercise that have proven effective for treating depressive symptoms and other mental disorders, here are some concrete exercises worth trying:
Talk therapy is one of the oldest, most proven tricks in the book, dating back all the way to Ancient Greece. It’s as tried-and-true a way of boosting your mental health as there is.
However, there are multiple forms of talk therapy that are unique unto themselves.
Here’s a rundown of some of those specific subsects of talk therapy:
CBT is perhaps the best-known and most popular form of talk therapy. This type of therapy involves working with a mental health care professional to work through issues.
You’ll work with your therapy provider to identify patterns of negative thoughts, and then “rewire” your brain to replace those negative thought patterns with more positive, healthier thoughts and behaviors.
There’s a lot of nuance here, and we’ve tackled much more of it in our guide, CBT For Depression.
Because brain chemistry contributes greatly to depression, antidepressants — which are designed to modify and refine your brain chemistry — are tried, tested and generally safe solutions to alleviating symptoms of depression or full-blown depression.
So what is psychiatry exactly?
Psychiatry is the practice of talk therapy combined with prescription medication, otherwise known as antidepressants.
Resultantly, seeking psychiatric help is a popular choice people make for combating their depression.
Group therapy can be a powerful way to alleviate moderate depression or the symptoms of depression associated with another mental disorder.
In group therapy, you’re surrounded in a safe space — run by a trained professional — of like-minded people who are experiencing the same mental health challenges and who are looking for a community in which they can discuss those challenges.
Those mental health challenges can range in scope and scale, but the constant when it comes to group therapy is that you are there to feel the support of a community — and to contribute to that same community your own compassion and support.
Electroconvulsive therapy can provide relief to those with extreme depression.
ECT is typically employed when one’s symptoms of depression have not been alleviated by other forms of therapy — talk therapy, psychiatry, etc.
With ECT, a patient receives a brief electrical stimulation to the brain while they are under anesthesia. Usually, a patient receives this treatment two to three times a week for six to 12 treatments.
Depression doesn’t have to control your life. Better yet, there’s a broad array of tools to help in the management of depression and help you live your best life.
Exercise is an excellent tool to employ if you need to do something about your depression. Better yet, research has proven that multiple forms of exercise can have a moderate-to-dramatic impact on your mental health.
Sounds like a pretty good buffet of self-improvement options, if you ask us.
It’s also important to remember that exercise isn’t a panacea for one’s mental health challenges. Instead, exercise is a critical piece of a broader puzzle in ensuring one’s feeling good.
Another critical component to improving one’s mental health is therapy. Coupled with exercise, therapy can help someone confront and take control of their depression.
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Mary is an accomplished emergency and trauma RN with more than 10 years of healthcare experience.
As a data scientist with a Masters degree in Health Informatics and Data Analytics from Boston University, Mary uses healthcare data to inform individual and public health efforts.