Depression and Exercise

Exercise is an effective, cost-effective treatment for depression and may help in the treatment of other mental disorders.


You know that exercise is good for your body. Among other facts, exercise decreases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke and related factors, decreases the risk of various cancers, lowers blood pressure, improves metabolism, reduces problems related to diabetes, assists in the maintenance of bone density, and improves your immune system.

But did you know that exercise is also good for your head? The most common treatments for depression, for example, are psychotherapy or medication. Psychologists have found that exercise is a third successful alternative. In a 1990 meta-analysis (an analysis that statistically summarized eighty studies of exercise and depression), a research team that included psychologist Penny McCullagh, PhD, reached the following conclusions:

  • Exercise was a beneficial antidepressant both immediately and over the long term.
  • Although exercise decreased depression among all populations studied, it was most effective in decreasing depression for those most physically and/or psychologically unhealthy at the start of the exercise program.
  • Although exercise significantly decreased depression across all age categories, the older people were (the ages ranged from eleven to fifty-five), the greater the decrease in depression with exercise.
  • Exercise was an equally effective antidepressant for both genders.
  • Walking and jogging were the most frequent forms of exercise that had been researched, but all modes of exercise examined, anaerobic as well as aerobic, were effective in lessening depression at least to some degree.
  • The greater the length of the exercise program and the larger the total number of exercise sessions, the greater the decrease in depression with exercise.
  • The most powerful antidepressant effect occurred with the combination of exercise and psychotherapy.

How does exercise compare with medication for the treatment of depression? Research regarding this question has only recently been explored. Psychologist James Blumenthal, PhD, and colleagues at Duke University have conducted a number of systematic studies of patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder using the two treatment conditions of exercise and medication. They have compared patients’ response to aerobic exercise only, psychotropic medication only (Zoloft, an SSRI), or a combination of the two. After four and a half months of treatment, patients receiving any of these treatments were significantly less depressed. About two-thirds were no longer depressed (Blumenthal et al. 1999). In a follow-up study by psychologist Michael Babyak, PhD, and colleagues, these same patients were contacted six months after the original study. They found that patients who had been in the exercise group were more likely to be partially or fully recovered than those who were in the medication or medication plus exercise group (Babyak et al. 2000).


Both individual experiments and general findings repeatedly point to the power of exercise in the treatment of clinical depression. Other studies indicate that exercise can be important in the treatment of various types of anxiety; issues of self-esteem; weight loss and weight loss management; and addictions. Research is emerging on the effectiveness of exercise in the maintenance of cognitive or mental functioning and the treatment of serious mental illness.

Practical Application

Evidence of the antidepressant benefits of exercise is being used by psychotherapists and other health practitioners who are increasingly recommending exercise to their patients as part of a treatment program. This research is also now being applied in books and articles that guide people toward happier living. In her 2002 book, Move your body, tone your mood, psychologist Kate Hays, PhD, suggests that if you are depressed and are considering exercise, the following are advisable:

  • Review your health status with your health care provider and obtain clearance to exercise.
  • Begin exercise gradually and set reasonable goals for yourself.
  • There is no one form of exercise guaranteed to lift depression. For many people, walking, running, or swimming is helpful, but some people value yoga and others feel emotionally as well as physically strengthened by weight lifting. This is an opportunity for personal experimentation.
  • Exercise may be an opportunity to increase contact with other people, especially if depression has resulted in decreased connection with others. Many people find that they can stick to their exercise plan if they work out with a friend who has similar goals.
  • Pay attention even to minor changes in your mood to evaluate what form of exercise or exercise intensity is most helpful to you.


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