Does Exercise Help Depression? Active Ways to Fight the Blues

By Margaret Wack|Updated August 10, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

When you're struggling with mental health issues, getting out of bed can feel impossible, never mind heading out the door for a workout. But exercise has actually been proven to have a positive effect on depression symptoms, and in some cases can even be as effective as medication. You don't have to run marathons or lift like a bodybuilder, either - a simple walk outdoors or a couple of bodyweight exercises can still reap mental health benefits. While exercise isn't a cure-all for those suffering from depression, it can have a significant positive effect.

Can Exercise Really Help My Depression?

Depression And The Body

Symptoms of those suffering from depression include struggling to take pleasure in daily activities, lethargy, irritability, and even physical pain. While the ways in which depression affects the brain and body still aren't fully understood, scientists think depression is correlated with abnormal levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.

Depression And Exercise

While the interaction between exercise and mental health is still unclear, it's theorized that one of the ways exercise works to combat depression by flooding the brain with endorphins, feel-good chemicals that improve your mood. Other hypotheses about the physical effects of exercise on depression include the fact that exercise raises the core body temperature, and that exercise increases neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.

In addition to the physical changes that come with exercise, researchers have also studied the psychological effect of exercise as it relates to depression. In this regard, physical exercise may serve as a distraction from other depression symptoms, both physical and mental. Exercise can also fight depression by increasing self-efficacy, making people more confident of their own abilities and better able to envision themselves succeeding in other tasks.

Along with these benefits, exercise can have even more positive effects depending upon what form it takes. Playing a sport, for instance, can help fight depression by cementing positive social connections with other people. Exercising outside, whether hiking, running, or just enjoying a stroll, meanwhile, gives you a healthy dose of sunshine and vitamin D. Exercise can also improve self-image and self-esteem by improving your physical fitness and help you get into better shape. While exercise shouldn't be the only method for treating depression, it has been shown to have a wealth of positive effects.

How To Combat Depression Through Exercise

Doctors recommend that patients get about two and a half hours, or 150 minutes, of activity a week. That's only a little over twenty minutes a day, making it a goal that's within reach for many people. If you want to give yourself a few days off, try incorporating some form of exercise for half an hour every weekday, or set aside a few hours each weekend to incorporate a long hike or a pickup sport. Try to find a form of exercise that works for you that's enjoyable and that you can accomplish even when you're feeling down. That way, you'll build confidence by achieving and manageable goal rather than beating yourself up for staying in bed.

If you're really struggling, try implementing the Pomodoro Technique, and set a timer for twenty-five minutes of exercise at a time. Try pushing yourself to do a simple activity, like a stroll around the block, a short yoga session, or a few bodyweight exercises in the twenty-five minute time frame. Once the timer goes off, you're done!

Find an activity that makes you happy, and soon it might become a pleasurable part of your routine, something that you look forward to rather than dread. Whatever form of exercise you choose, you can be confident that it will have a positive effect upon your mental health. Here are just a few forms of exercise that can help those struggling with depression and other mental health issues:

  1. Hiking

If you enjoy the outdoors, consider incorporating a hike or two into your weekly routine. No matter where you live, there are usually a few public parks nearby to stretch your legs in and many places have trail systems dedicated just to hiking. Hiking also puts you in tune with your natural environment, encouraging you to take the time to notice things like the weather, the changing of the seasons, and the world around you. Hiking is also a great activity for those who want to set their own pace and explore new routes and destinations. Whether you hike alone or with a friend, you'll be reaping the benefits of a healthy dose of sunshine, physical activity, and a sense of connection with the natural world.

  1. Yoga

Yoga has been shown to ease symptoms of both depression and anxiety. Whether you're a beginner or a yoga fanatic, there are a variety of different styles of yoga to choose from, as well as classes offered for different levels and physical abilities. Yoga helps improve physical strength, flexibility, posture, and more. As a discipline centered in the practice of mindfulness and meditation, yoga also offers additional mental health benefits above and beyond other forms of exercise. Yoga encourages practitioners to recognize the fundamental connection between the body and the mind, encouraging wellness on physical, mental, and spiritual levels.

  1. High Intensity Interval Training

High intensity interval training, or HIIT, involves short bursts of strenuous exercise, followed by periods of rest. This form of exercise involves both aerobic and anaerobic activities, and can be a great way to break a sweat while improving all-around health. As an added bonus, high intensity interval training is usually timed, and often has a relatively short duration in order to maximize efficiency. If you're looking for a vigorous workout to incorporate into your day, you can do high intensity interval training at home, at the gym, or with a group.

  1. Running

Experienced runners often speak of a runner's high, a flood of endorphins and other feel-good chemicals to the brain that occurs through a run. While not everybody experiences this euphoric feeling right away, running can have impressive positive effects on both physical and mental health. If you're looking to fight symptoms of depression, runners often claim that it has an effect like no other. You can go for a run on a treadmill, but for added benefits try planning a run outside, whether along a designated trail or just around the block. The sunshine and sensory stimulation will give you additional positive effects. Many runners also enjoy running as part of a group, cheering each other on and holding each other accountable.

  1. Weight Lifting

If building muscle is more your speed, strength training can also have a significant effect on depression and mental health. Lifting weights consistently has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression while increasing physical fitness. Since depression is often characterized by physical inactivity and lethargy, it's especially important to maintain muscle mass and strength. Strength training has also been shown to have a positive effect on symptoms of anxiety, making it good for your mental health on multiple fronts! And just like yoga, lifting weights often increases mindfulness by getting you in tune with your own body. At the end of a workout, you'll feel refreshed both mentally and physically.

  1. Bodyweight Exercises

Even when you can't bring yourself to leave the house, bodyweight exercises can be a great alternative for those looking to incorporate physical fitness into their routine without joining a gym or exploring the great outdoors. Focusing on exercises that you can do with little to no additional equipment, bodyweight exercises are a form of strength training that includes activities like pushups, lunges, planks, and more. Bodyweight exercises can be done anywhere there's a little extra space to move around, even if it's just your bedroom floor. These exercises can also be customized according to your level of physical fitness, strengths, and weaknesses. Even just a few exercises a day can be enough to reap the benefits of physical activity in regard to mental health.

  1. Sports

Whether you're a sports fanatic or haven't been on a team since high school, group sports can be a great way to benefit from exercise while having fun with friends. No matter what sport you're interested in, there are often adult pickup leagues that cater to people looking for a fun, low-stress way to exercise. Whether you decide to join your local softball team or start a game of ultimate Frisbee with a couple of friends, sports are a great form of exercise that will also have a positive effect on mental health.

  1. Swimming

If you're a beach bum, good news: swimming in cold water has been shown to have a significant benefit for mental health and depression. Swimming combines the benefits of physical exercise, sunshine, and the stress-relieving effects of cold water. Many people also experience a sense of calm while swimming, which regulates breathing and stretches and exercises important core muscles.

Can Exercise Really Help My Depression?

Are you struggling with depression or other mental health issues? While exercise is a great way to combat the symptoms of depression, sometimes it's a good idea to seek out professional help. BetterHelp's diverse selection of online therapy services can provide you the services you need to manage your mental health. Get in touch with us today!

Other Commonly Asked Questions

How does exercise reduce depression?

Does exercise help anxiety and depression?

What exercises help depression?

Is exercise a natural antidepressant?

Is exercise better than antidepressants?

What exercise is best for mental health?

Can exercise reduce overthinking?

Does exercise release serotonin?

What is the best exercise for anxiety and depression?

What is the first step toward coping with depression?

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