Back to Blog List

Combatting Depression with Exercise


We all know physical activity is good for us and has numerous benefits. People with depression, however, typically spend less time being physically active and spend more time being sedentary than people without depression. While finding the energy and motivation to exercise may be especially challenging for people with depression, physical activity can help reduce symptoms of depression.

While many past studies have found mental health benefits of exercise, new research continues to further highlight the role of physical activity and exercise in not only treating depression but also preventing the onset of depression. 

One recent meta-analysis looked at the type and intensity of physical activity and exercise and found that there were larger effects on depression with aerobic exercise versus resistance exercise, and at moderate and vigorous levels versus light to moderate levels. They also found when people with depression participate in exercise classes or other physical activities supervised by exercise professionals, they benefit more, possibly because people are more likely to commit and stay with the exercise. The authors conclude their study “confirms and strengthens the case that exercise is an evidence-based treatment for depression.”

Exercise .jpgAnother meta-analysis involving 49 studies and more than 250,000 individuals looked at the potential of physical activity to help prevent depression. They found that compared with people with low levels of physical activity, those with high levels had lower odds of developing depression. Physical activity had this protective effect against depression not only in adults, but also among youths and elderly people. The authors suggest that “It is likely that no single mechanism can explain this relationship. A range of biochemical and psychosocial factors are likely responsible.” Physical activity can help reduce inflammatory markers and may directly increase self-esteem or perceptions of physical competence, the authors note.

A recent large study looking at more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. found that people who exercise had 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health each month compared to people who do not exercise. Among people who had previously been diagnosed with depression, those who exercised reported an average of 3.75 fewer days of poor mental health

The study also looked at how much and what types of exercise provided the most benefit. They found that exercising 45 minutes, three to five times a week was optimal. People who exercised three to five times a week had better mental health than those who exercised more than five times or less than three times. 

The study also found that activities providing the most mental health benefit were team sports, cycling, aerobics and going to the gym. The authors note that team sports may bring the extra advantages of social connection and helping to reduce isolation. However, all types of exercise, even household chores, were associated with better mental health.  


  • Schuch, FB, et al Exercise as a treatment for depression: a meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2016, 77:42-51/
  • Schuch, FB, et al. Physical activity and sedentary behavior in people with major depressive disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2017 Mar 1;210:139-150.
  • Schuch, FB, et al. Physical Activity and Incident Depression: A Meta-analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2018 175(7);631-648. 


DepressionPatients and Families


Comments (0)