What Science Says About Exercise And Depression

Updated May 5, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Because of the well-established mind-body connection that links our mental and physical health, exercise has often been suggested as a way to manage depression symptoms. As research continues to point to a significant relationship between physical activity and improved depression symptoms, you may be curious as to the science behind this association or the most effective forms of exercise for depression. In this article, we’re examining some of the research that serves as a basis for the idea that physical activity can alleviate depression.  

Does Exercise Relieve Depression Symptoms?

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The benefits of exercise for mental health have long been espoused by healthcare professionals, researchers, and other experts. Organizations that range from Harvard Medical School to the National Institutes of Health have explained the importance of physical activity when it comes to improving depression. Their conclusions are primarily drawn from a wide-ranging body of research that has been developed over several decades.

For example, one meta-analysis on the benefits of exercise for depression—which consisted of 23 randomized controlled trials, including almost 1,000 total participants—found that, overall, physical activity led to significant improvements in the short term. Researchers concluded that exercise is an “effective intervention for depression”. 

There are numerous other analyses and trials that have alternative formats or compare the effects of exercise with other treatment methods. The vast majority of these show that exercise can reduce the severity of symptoms. Now that we know there is a solid link between exercise and improved depression symptoms, below we will dive deeper into which forms of exercise are most effective and how you can implement them. 

What Type Of Exercise Is Best?

Overall, research suggests that a wide variety of exercises decrease depression. However, there is evidence that certain types of physical activity are more effective at reducing symptoms. Most of these studies examined or compared the effects of moderate aerobic and nonaerobic exercise. Aerobic exercises—often called cardio—include activities like jogging, cycling, swimming, and walking. 

Many experts believe that the higher levels of oxygen required by aerobic activity make that form of exercise more beneficial for depression. For example, one study on aerobic exercise measured the influence of increased maximum oxygen uptake. The subjects participated in an aerobic exercise program for one hour, three times a week. Their depression did improve, an effect researchers attributed to increases in oxygen uptake during the exercise programs.

However, another study that compared aerobic to nonaerobic exercise found that the increase in maximum oxygen uptake had no bearing on the improvement of depression symptoms during regular physical activity. The people who participated in the nonaerobic exercise had just as many benefits as those who participated in the aerobic exercise.

In addition to cardio, there is plenty of evidence pointing to strength training, such as lifting weights, as an effective exercise method for reducing depression. One study found that a weight-training fitness program for adults improved both sleep and other symptoms of depression. Another trial showed that high-intensity strength training—which focuses more on short but intense reps—may reduce symptoms of depression more than low-intensity workouts. 

There is evidence that even small amounts of exercise can improve depression symptoms. One meta-analysis suggests that just over 10 minutes of moderate activity a day can lead to an 18% reduction in the risk of depression. 

What, though, are the characteristics of an effective workout regimen for depression? In a meta-analysis of studies, researchers concluded that the physical activities that were most effective in relieving depression were:

  • dynamic
  • uninterrupted
  • less dependent on focusing and decision-making 

How Does Exercise Improve Mood?

Researchers have made several conclusions about how exercise might work to improve mood, including:

  • Promoting a sense of mastery
  • Building self-esteem and a positive self-image
  • Releasing mood-boosting brain chemicals
  • Providing a distraction

The physical health effects of exercise are also thought to improve mood. These include:

  • Better health, including controlled blood pressure and decreased risk of heart disease
  • Greater flexibility, which can decrease the frequency of body aches
  • Weight loss, which can reduce the likelihood of other health concerns

Research published in the journal Brain Plasticity shows that exercise may also help improve neurochemical functioning in the following ways:

  • Enhanced metabolism, which can improve depression via the gut-brain axis
  • Turnover of monoamines and other central neurotransmitters at presynaptic and postsynaptic sites, in the same way that SSRI medications work
  • Increased serotonin in the brain, which can improve sleep, enhance mood, and also help lower blood pressure
  • Increased endorphins, which can boost mood and relieve pain
  • Increased corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which can moderate stress
  • Increased energy levels, especially in people who have less motivation

Is Exercise Alone Enough?

While exercise has proven benefits when it comes to the symptoms of depressive disorders, it's unclear the extent to which it reduces symptoms. Most experts agree that exercise should be implemented alongside traditional modalities, such as psychotherapy and medication, as opposed to being used as a standalone treatment. Overall, more research has been done on medications and talk therapy than physical activity, so their effects are better proven and understood. If you are living with depression, a healthcare professional can help you determine how exercise might fit into your treatment plan. 

Barriers To Treatment Through Exercise

Exercise may be very helpful for certain people. However, there are a few things that can limit the effectiveness or feasibility of an exercise program for depression. Some people who live with depression may find it hard to exercise because of common depressive symptoms, such as fatigue, lack of motivation, stress, and sleep disturbances. Others may have physical health concerns that make exercise more difficult. For example, someone who lives with a condition like fibromyalgia (a disorder that commonly leads to depression) may have trouble exercising due to muscle and joint pain. Additionally, a lack of access to facilities and resources can be a barrier for some. 

Looking For Guidance As You Navigate Depression?

What Does The Research On Exercise And Depression Mean For Me?

A growing number of studies suggest that even exercise may help you manage symptoms of even moderate to severe depressive disorders. To take advantage of these benefits, consider developing an exercise program that you enjoy and can easily incorporate into your life. 

Research shows that exercise may be more effective for depression when it’s enjoyable for the participant. You can participate in forms of exercise based around things that you already like to do. If you love being in nature, consider hiking, mountain biking, or even gardening. If you like team activities, there are often local sports leagues available for many different age groups. 

It can also help to create exercise goals are that are achievable so that you are less likely to be discouraged or disappointed in your progress. For example, if you’ve just started running, consider setting a goal of completing two or three miles a week, then slowly increasing your weekly mileage over time.  

Primary Treatment Methods For Depression

Psychotherapy and medication are the standard forms of treatment for depressive disorders. Therapy is a proven way of addressing the sources of depression and developing tools that can help the individual manage their symptoms. A therapist can teach you techniques and coping skills to ease depression. They can also help you determine what lifestyle changes—such as regular exercise—will be beneficial for your mood.

Common medications for depression include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and tricyclic antidepressants. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting or stopping any medication. 

Navigating Depression With Online Therapy

An increasingly large number of studies show that online therapy can help individuals manage symptoms of depressive disorders. For example, a study on the efficacy of online therapy for depression found that treatment improved symptoms, while also enhancing measures like overall quality of life and self-esteem. Researchers noted that online therapy can help bridge the treatment gap that exists due to various barriers, such as geographical limitations, loss of motivation, and perceived stigma. 

If you’d like comprehensive, accessible mental health care, consider reaching out to a professional through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. Online therapy allows you to participate in treatment remotely, through video call, voice call, or in-app messaging, which can be helpful if motivation has become elusive because of depression. You can also reach out to your online therapist anytime, day or night; if you want to clarify a point made during your session or have a question about depression, you can send them a message, and they’ll respond when they’re able.


Research continues to elucidate the links between physical activity and improved depression symptoms, providing us with insights into how and why exercise can be beneficial. If you’re living with a depressive disorder or similar challenge, a licensed mental health professional can help you determine how exercise and other strategies might fit into an overall treatment plan. Connecting with a therapist can be a positive first step toward a healthy mind and body. 

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