The Role of Exercise in Treating Depression

Reviewed May 15, 2017

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Summary

  • Studies show that exercise helps lift depression in some people.
  • Start with small amounts; consult your doctor first.

Researchers have been looking into the effect exercise has on mood disorders for at least a century, yet they are still trying to help us understand why exercise is helpful in treating depression. So many variables come into play with such research:

  • Is it the social support of group exercise that lifts our moods?
  • Does exercising outdoors give us more gain from exposure to daylight rather than the exercise itself?
  • Does it matter what form of exercise we choose?
  • How does the variety of depression’s causes and effects on individuals relate to the effectiveness of exercise?

Organizations such as the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association continue to support research that may answer these questions and more. Until such research is concluded and published, consider what the most recent and reliable studies indicate about exercise and depression.

According to Gregg Tkachuk and Dr. Garry Martin, members of the psychology department at the University of Manitoba and authors of Exercise Therapy for Patients With Psychiatric Disorders: Research and Clinical Implications, no controlled study has ever found exercise to be an ineffective treatment tool for mild to moderate depression.

A Harvard Medical School study published in 2005 found that walking fast for about 35 minutes a day, five times a week or 60 minutes a day, three times a week had a significant influence on mild to moderate depression symptoms. However it works, exercise does appear to help lift existing clinical depression in some individuals and perhaps prevent its onset.

How does exercise help?

Experts think that exercise helps treat depression for psychological and physiological reasons.

Psychological factors

  • Adding exercise to your routine can increase your sense of mastery, control, and accomplishment.
  • Working out with friends or in a group can increase the feeling of social support.
  • Exercise such as walking outdoors can be an enjoyable, satisfying experience.
  • Any form of exercise is a potential distraction from worries and negative thoughts that make depression worse.

Physiological factors

  • Clinical studies link exercise with improved sleep, which helps alleviate depression in some people
  • Michal Artal, MD, author of Exercise Against Depression, maintains that exercise may influence the metabolism and availability of central neurotransmitters—as well as hormones associated with mood—affecting brain chemistry beneficially.
  • Exercise increases the body’s metabolic rate and decreases blood pressure, thus increasing energy, which is a great way to fight fatigue.

Limitations to consider

There are some limitations to prescribing exercise to help lift depression. Before you get started with an exercise program, it’s wise to consult your doctor. Dr. Artal makes the following points:

  • Fatigue and slowed responses related to depression may make it very difficult to get started. Medicine and therapy may be recommended first to help decrease the fatigue.
  • Feelings of hopelessness or lack of control may make it difficult to stick with a new workout schedule. You may need therapy and medicine to take effect first to avoid feelings of failure or guilt for not sticking with an exercise program.
  • Some of the older antidepressants may interfere with the ease and safety of exercise; they can cause problems with low blood pressure, sedation, and cardiac arrythmias.
  • If you have severe clinical depression, which drastically reduces a person’s ability to leave the confines of his bed, medical intervention and improvement must occur before exercise can be considered.
  • If you have a disorder that can occur with depression, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, you need a therapist’s careful attention to determine if exercise has become a negative addition to your routine.

What form of exercise is best?

Although many clinical studies have measured the effect of group aerobic exercise on mood disorders, recent research has compared aerobic and nonaerobic exercise and strength training as treatment tools. These studies conclude that no one form of exercise is more effective than another in treating and preventing depression.

Any kind of exercise is likely to improve depression as long as it meets the specific needs of the individual. Where group aerobics classes may decrease feelings of isolation in one person, they may increase anxiety in someone who also has social phobia. If fatigue interferes initially with exercise that challenges your heart aerobically, you can try lower intensity exercise such as brief walks at a leisurely pace or mild resistance training such as Pilates or yoga and still feel better.

It’s important to keep in mind that where depression is concerned, fitness is not the immediate goal of your exercise program. The priority is to feel better and lift your mood. Research suggests that you do not have to achieve any fitness gains at all in order to benefit from exercise’s effect on depression. It may help to start with very small amounts of exercise, thus decreasing the risk of giving in to fatigue and feeling guilty for failing to meet unrealistic goals. Be sure to consult your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Here are a few exercise options that can help treat depression:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Aerobics classes
  • Weight lifting/strength training
  • Yoga and other flexibility/strength classes
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Tennis
  • Horseback riding

Whatever form of exercise you choose, it should match your personal tastes and limitations. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that healthy adults walk or exercise aerobically at a moderate pace at least 150 minutes or at a vigorous pace at least 90 minutes a week. They also recommend adding resistance and flexibility training two to three times a week. This might be too much to start. An initial goal of walking 15 minutes, three times a week likely will benefit you in the beginning and leave plenty of room for you to increase your goal as your mood and energy improve.

Consult your doctor, set a realistic small goal to start with, and you’re on your way to adding one more beneficial tool to lift depression.

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Duke University Medical Center; M.L. Pollock. (1998) "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise." IDEA Personal Trainer, 30; Michal Artal. (1998) "Exercise Against Depression." The Physician and Sportsmedicine, (26): 1-6; Len Kravitz, PhD. (2000) "Exercise and Psychological Health." IDEA Personal Trainer, 19-21; Gregg Tkachuk and Garry L. Martin (1998) "Exercise Therapy for Patients With Psychiatric Disorders: Research and Clinical Implications." American Psychological Association Journal, (30): 275-282; Erica Perkins, University of Virginia fitness director

Summary

  • Studies show that exercise helps lift depression in some people.
  • Start with small amounts; consult your doctor first.

Researchers have been looking into the effect exercise has on mood disorders for at least a century, yet they are still trying to help us understand why exercise is helpful in treating depression. So many variables come into play with such research:

  • Is it the social support of group exercise that lifts our moods?
  • Does exercising outdoors give us more gain from exposure to daylight rather than the exercise itself?
  • Does it matter what form of exercise we choose?
  • How does the variety of depression’s causes and effects on individuals relate to the effectiveness of exercise?

Organizations such as the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association continue to support research that may answer these questions and more. Until such research is concluded and published, consider what the most recent and reliable studies indicate about exercise and depression.

According to Gregg Tkachuk and Dr. Garry Martin, members of the psychology department at the University of Manitoba and authors of Exercise Therapy for Patients With Psychiatric Disorders: Research and Clinical Implications, no controlled study has ever found exercise to be an ineffective treatment tool for mild to moderate depression.

A Harvard Medical School study published in 2005 found that walking fast for about 35 minutes a day, five times a week or 60 minutes a day, three times a week had a significant influence on mild to moderate depression symptoms. However it works, exercise does appear to help lift existing clinical depression in some individuals and perhaps prevent its onset.

How does exercise help?

Experts think that exercise helps treat depression for psychological and physiological reasons.

Psychological factors

  • Adding exercise to your routine can increase your sense of mastery, control, and accomplishment.
  • Working out with friends or in a group can increase the feeling of social support.
  • Exercise such as walking outdoors can be an enjoyable, satisfying experience.
  • Any form of exercise is a potential distraction from worries and negative thoughts that make depression worse.

Physiological factors

  • Clinical studies link exercise with improved sleep, which helps alleviate depression in some people
  • Michal Artal, MD, author of Exercise Against Depression, maintains that exercise may influence the metabolism and availability of central neurotransmitters—as well as hormones associated with mood—affecting brain chemistry beneficially.
  • Exercise increases the body’s metabolic rate and decreases blood pressure, thus increasing energy, which is a great way to fight fatigue.

Limitations to consider

There are some limitations to prescribing exercise to help lift depression. Before you get started with an exercise program, it’s wise to consult your doctor. Dr. Artal makes the following points:

  • Fatigue and slowed responses related to depression may make it very difficult to get started. Medicine and therapy may be recommended first to help decrease the fatigue.
  • Feelings of hopelessness or lack of control may make it difficult to stick with a new workout schedule. You may need therapy and medicine to take effect first to avoid feelings of failure or guilt for not sticking with an exercise program.
  • Some of the older antidepressants may interfere with the ease and safety of exercise; they can cause problems with low blood pressure, sedation, and cardiac arrythmias.
  • If you have severe clinical depression, which drastically reduces a person’s ability to leave the confines of his bed, medical intervention and improvement must occur before exercise can be considered.
  • If you have a disorder that can occur with depression, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, you need a therapist’s careful attention to determine if exercise has become a negative addition to your routine.

What form of exercise is best?

Although many clinical studies have measured the effect of group aerobic exercise on mood disorders, recent research has compared aerobic and nonaerobic exercise and strength training as treatment tools. These studies conclude that no one form of exercise is more effective than another in treating and preventing depression.

Any kind of exercise is likely to improve depression as long as it meets the specific needs of the individual. Where group aerobics classes may decrease feelings of isolation in one person, they may increase anxiety in someone who also has social phobia. If fatigue interferes initially with exercise that challenges your heart aerobically, you can try lower intensity exercise such as brief walks at a leisurely pace or mild resistance training such as Pilates or yoga and still feel better.

It’s important to keep in mind that where depression is concerned, fitness is not the immediate goal of your exercise program. The priority is to feel better and lift your mood. Research suggests that you do not have to achieve any fitness gains at all in order to benefit from exercise’s effect on depression. It may help to start with very small amounts of exercise, thus decreasing the risk of giving in to fatigue and feeling guilty for failing to meet unrealistic goals. Be sure to consult your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Here are a few exercise options that can help treat depression:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Aerobics classes
  • Weight lifting/strength training
  • Yoga and other flexibility/strength classes
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Tennis
  • Horseback riding

Whatever form of exercise you choose, it should match your personal tastes and limitations. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that healthy adults walk or exercise aerobically at a moderate pace at least 150 minutes or at a vigorous pace at least 90 minutes a week. They also recommend adding resistance and flexibility training two to three times a week. This might be too much to start. An initial goal of walking 15 minutes, three times a week likely will benefit you in the beginning and leave plenty of room for you to increase your goal as your mood and energy improve.

Consult your doctor, set a realistic small goal to start with, and you’re on your way to adding one more beneficial tool to lift depression.

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Duke University Medical Center; M.L. Pollock. (1998) "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise." IDEA Personal Trainer, 30; Michal Artal. (1998) "Exercise Against Depression." The Physician and Sportsmedicine, (26): 1-6; Len Kravitz, PhD. (2000) "Exercise and Psychological Health." IDEA Personal Trainer, 19-21; Gregg Tkachuk and Garry L. Martin (1998) "Exercise Therapy for Patients With Psychiatric Disorders: Research and Clinical Implications." American Psychological Association Journal, (30): 275-282; Erica Perkins, University of Virginia fitness director

Summary

  • Studies show that exercise helps lift depression in some people.
  • Start with small amounts; consult your doctor first.

Researchers have been looking into the effect exercise has on mood disorders for at least a century, yet they are still trying to help us understand why exercise is helpful in treating depression. So many variables come into play with such research:

  • Is it the social support of group exercise that lifts our moods?
  • Does exercising outdoors give us more gain from exposure to daylight rather than the exercise itself?
  • Does it matter what form of exercise we choose?
  • How does the variety of depression’s causes and effects on individuals relate to the effectiveness of exercise?

Organizations such as the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association continue to support research that may answer these questions and more. Until such research is concluded and published, consider what the most recent and reliable studies indicate about exercise and depression.

According to Gregg Tkachuk and Dr. Garry Martin, members of the psychology department at the University of Manitoba and authors of Exercise Therapy for Patients With Psychiatric Disorders: Research and Clinical Implications, no controlled study has ever found exercise to be an ineffective treatment tool for mild to moderate depression.

A Harvard Medical School study published in 2005 found that walking fast for about 35 minutes a day, five times a week or 60 minutes a day, three times a week had a significant influence on mild to moderate depression symptoms. However it works, exercise does appear to help lift existing clinical depression in some individuals and perhaps prevent its onset.

How does exercise help?

Experts think that exercise helps treat depression for psychological and physiological reasons.

Psychological factors

  • Adding exercise to your routine can increase your sense of mastery, control, and accomplishment.
  • Working out with friends or in a group can increase the feeling of social support.
  • Exercise such as walking outdoors can be an enjoyable, satisfying experience.
  • Any form of exercise is a potential distraction from worries and negative thoughts that make depression worse.

Physiological factors

  • Clinical studies link exercise with improved sleep, which helps alleviate depression in some people
  • Michal Artal, MD, author of Exercise Against Depression, maintains that exercise may influence the metabolism and availability of central neurotransmitters—as well as hormones associated with mood—affecting brain chemistry beneficially.
  • Exercise increases the body’s metabolic rate and decreases blood pressure, thus increasing energy, which is a great way to fight fatigue.

Limitations to consider

There are some limitations to prescribing exercise to help lift depression. Before you get started with an exercise program, it’s wise to consult your doctor. Dr. Artal makes the following points:

  • Fatigue and slowed responses related to depression may make it very difficult to get started. Medicine and therapy may be recommended first to help decrease the fatigue.
  • Feelings of hopelessness or lack of control may make it difficult to stick with a new workout schedule. You may need therapy and medicine to take effect first to avoid feelings of failure or guilt for not sticking with an exercise program.
  • Some of the older antidepressants may interfere with the ease and safety of exercise; they can cause problems with low blood pressure, sedation, and cardiac arrythmias.
  • If you have severe clinical depression, which drastically reduces a person’s ability to leave the confines of his bed, medical intervention and improvement must occur before exercise can be considered.
  • If you have a disorder that can occur with depression, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, you need a therapist’s careful attention to determine if exercise has become a negative addition to your routine.

What form of exercise is best?

Although many clinical studies have measured the effect of group aerobic exercise on mood disorders, recent research has compared aerobic and nonaerobic exercise and strength training as treatment tools. These studies conclude that no one form of exercise is more effective than another in treating and preventing depression.

Any kind of exercise is likely to improve depression as long as it meets the specific needs of the individual. Where group aerobics classes may decrease feelings of isolation in one person, they may increase anxiety in someone who also has social phobia. If fatigue interferes initially with exercise that challenges your heart aerobically, you can try lower intensity exercise such as brief walks at a leisurely pace or mild resistance training such as Pilates or yoga and still feel better.

It’s important to keep in mind that where depression is concerned, fitness is not the immediate goal of your exercise program. The priority is to feel better and lift your mood. Research suggests that you do not have to achieve any fitness gains at all in order to benefit from exercise’s effect on depression. It may help to start with very small amounts of exercise, thus decreasing the risk of giving in to fatigue and feeling guilty for failing to meet unrealistic goals. Be sure to consult your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Here are a few exercise options that can help treat depression:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Aerobics classes
  • Weight lifting/strength training
  • Yoga and other flexibility/strength classes
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Tennis
  • Horseback riding

Whatever form of exercise you choose, it should match your personal tastes and limitations. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that healthy adults walk or exercise aerobically at a moderate pace at least 150 minutes or at a vigorous pace at least 90 minutes a week. They also recommend adding resistance and flexibility training two to three times a week. This might be too much to start. An initial goal of walking 15 minutes, three times a week likely will benefit you in the beginning and leave plenty of room for you to increase your goal as your mood and energy improve.

Consult your doctor, set a realistic small goal to start with, and you’re on your way to adding one more beneficial tool to lift depression.

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Duke University Medical Center; M.L. Pollock. (1998) "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise." IDEA Personal Trainer, 30; Michal Artal. (1998) "Exercise Against Depression." The Physician and Sportsmedicine, (26): 1-6; Len Kravitz, PhD. (2000) "Exercise and Psychological Health." IDEA Personal Trainer, 19-21; Gregg Tkachuk and Garry L. Martin (1998) "Exercise Therapy for Patients With Psychiatric Disorders: Research and Clinical Implications." American Psychological Association Journal, (30): 275-282; Erica Perkins, University of Virginia fitness director

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