Talk about a perfect example of a catch-22: Exercise has been shown, over numerous studies, to have a significantly beneficial effect on depression — yet research also indicates that depressive symptoms make it much tougher to exercise.
For example, a December 2016 study in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica looked at the effects of physical activity on depression in 36 countries, with nearly 179,000 participants, and found a strong association between depression and being sedentary. Similar research in a March 2018 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders noted this connection is associated with poor health outcomes, including increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
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At the same time, research is increasingly highlighting the ways that exercise may not just help ease depression, but might also play a role in prevention.
An August 2019 study in Current Sports Medicine Reports states that not everyone with depression responds to medication and psychological interventions — but there's plenty of evidence showing higher physical activity levels are effective for preventing and reducing symptoms of depression, regardless of age or severity of the condition. And, a November 2019 study in Depression and Anxiety found physical activity lowers the risk of depression even in those who're genetically predisposed to it or who've dealt with it in the past.
It sounds glib — and frankly, insulting to some degree — to suggest someone with depression should "just exercise to feel better," when it takes much more motivation than it would for someone who doesn't have the condition. After all, even if you don't have diagnosed depression but just feel mentally or emotionally spent, who feels like working out? It's all you can do to get through the day, let alone muster the energy to get up and exercise.
This might help: We're not talking triathlons or even high-intensity activity necessarily. Along with evidence that exercise can be beneficial on mood, there's also research indicating that it really doesn't take much to make that happen. As in, just a walk outside during lunch could have a profound effect, especially because it establishes a habit of regular physical activity. Here's a look at why, along with some tips to get you started.
Can Exercise Actually Improve Depression?
When people start exercising, "even if just a bit," a number of things can happen, says Lisa Uebelacker, PhD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University's Alpert Medical School. For one thing, being active can boost your self-esteem, she says. It also helps people manage stress, lose weight, boost mental alertness and sleep better, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
That last one, improved sleep quality, is huge for addressing depression. A January 2022 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests both insufficient sleep and excessive sleep both increase the risk for depression. And a September 2022 study in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences suggests difficulty sleeping is linked to higher prevalence of depression, and that association was true for all age groups. That means boosting sleep quality and hitting the duration that's best for your body — on average about 7 to 9 hours per night — could ease depression symptoms.
In terms of how exercise improves mood overall, that involves a number of factors. Exercise has long been associated with the release of endorphins (the brain chemicals behind the euphoric feeling known as runner's high) and serotonin (aka the happy chemical), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
There's also evidence that a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) may play a key role. BDNF helps brain cells grow and thrive and aids cell-to-cell communication in the brain, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. And Boston University researchers suspect it "may be a primary mechanism of the anti-depressive effects of exercise."
So, How Much Exercise Do You Need?
The good news is that any amount of activity is better than none at all. A January 2018 study in The American Journal of Psychiatry reported that at least one hour of physical activity a week, regardless of intensity, may help protect against future depression. That's less than 10 minutes per day.
Another study, published in a 2019 issue of JAMA Psychiatry, suggests that about 15 minutes a day of high-intensity exercise like running, or an hour of lower-level exertion, like walking or doing housework, may protect against depression. A 2022 research review in JAMA Psychiatry noted that about 2.5 hours weekly of brisk walking was associated with substantially lower risk of depression.
How Do You Motivate Yourself to Get Moving?
If you have diagnosed depression or another mood disorder, coping with a chronic medical condition or taking care of a loved one, motivation may be lacking, to say the least.
"The last thing you want to do when you're feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, for most people, is exercise," says Chris Gagliardi, an ACE-certified health coach and personal trainer in San Diego.
Beating yourself up won't help, but moving just a little bit more might be the medicine you need. Here are some pointers on how to get started.
1. Be Real With Yourself
Let's say you're open to the idea of exercising. Maybe you've thought about doing something but haven't committed, and you're certainly not intending to lace up your sneakers today — or tomorrow, for that matter.
As a first step, Gagliardi asks people to think through why they want to exercise. How will it help you make your day-to-day life better? "Sometimes it helps to connect your long-term goals to your daily activities," Uebelacker says. For example, if your goal is to keep up with your grandkids, walking a few times a week can help you get in shape. If your goal is manage your depression more effectively, think about how exercise may improve your sleep quality a bit more each night.
John Berardi, PhD, founder of Precision Nutrition recommends a "5 Whys" exercise approach. Take your initial answer to "Why do I want to exercise?" and break that down further. So if your first reason is to have more energy — fatigue is very common with depression — ask why you want to be more alert. Keep going until you get to the reason that is going to truly motivate you.
2. Aim for the Bare Minimum to Start
You've likely heard the recommendation that most adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While that's a great goal to aim for over time, it's not very realistic if you're not exercising at all.
Begin by setting small, realistic goals, says Chad Rethorst, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center in Dallas. "It might be a 5- to 10-minute walk a couple times a week to start out with and just progressing from there," he says.
When you're first starting out, apply the What You Can When You Can philosophy from authors Carla Birnberg and Roni Noone. Like the name implies, do whatever you can — walk your dog, stretch, garden, ride your bike — when you can. You might be surprised how those first small steps snowball into a larger daily routine.
3. Run an Experiment
If you're inactive, the thought of embarking on an exercise regimen can be daunting. Instead of focusing on the effort involved, take one tiny step toward your goal. "What would happen if you took that 15-minute walk?" Gagliardi asks clients.
He suggests setting it up as an experiment — even if it's a single session — to see if it works for you. Pay attention to how you feel during the exercise and afterward. It's often a tipping point for clients. When they feel the effects of exercise, "that's where the power is," he says.
Gagliardi recalls working with a woman in her mid-30s with a stressful desk job who was taking medication for depression. One day, still in her work clothes, she decided to go for a walk. That 20-minute experiment changed her demeanor. "It was like talking to a different person," he says. With that single win under her belt, she worked up to walking three times a week and reported feeling happier and healthier.
4. Find What You Love
Let's be honest: You're not going to pound the pavement after work if you loathe running. Maybe swimming's your thing. Or line dancing. Or yoga. If you look fondly on your high school basketball days, heading to the court to shoot hoops may be just the thing to bring you back to your happy place.
Experts say whatever you do, find something you love. "If you enjoy it, you are more likely to keep at it," Uebelacker says.
5. Celebrate Little Victories
When you're feeling meh but manage to meet friends for a pick-up soccer game, that's success! Little achievements can help you build self-efficacy — confidence in your own abilities to manage situations or tasks. And that will empower you to stick with it, Gagliardi says.
Gagliardi advises clients to focus on "process goals" (riding your bike around the block), not "product goals" (like dropping 20 pounds). "Just the fact that you did it, can we celebrate that?" he asks. Yes, yes we can!
6. Leave Proof for Your Future Self
So, how's it going? Tracking your mood and how it changes with exercise can be a powerful tool for holding yourself accountable, Gagliardi says. Try one of the various mood-rating scales to rate your degree of happiness or sadness throughout the day or come up with your own.
Let's say you're thinking about skipping your walk because you're too stressed out. Or, because you've already missed a day of exercise, you wonder why you should even bother working out the rest of the week.
Claiming defeat before even you even try to work out or engaging all-or-nothing thinking is unproductive. Revisit your journal to challenge those irrational thoughts, Gagliardi says. "Look at how less stressed or less anxious you were feeling on the days you did exercise."
7. Enlist an Exercise Partner
Why not rally family members, friends or neighbors around your fitness goals? "You will be more likely to follow through on exercise plans if you know someone else is waiting for you," Uebelacker says. Group exercise has other benefits, too. Some people may find they like socializing with others when they go to the gym and that making a date adds structure to their day, she says.
Or maybe you have another significant other to help you along your exercise journey — your pup. In a small study, published August 2017 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, dog owners described dog walking as relaxing, stress-relieving and fun. The fact that the owners themselves were getting some exercise was not the prime motivator for walking their dogs, but it was definitely a bonus!
- Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica: "Physical activity and depression: a large cross-sectional, population-based study across 36 low- and middle-income countries"
- Journal of Affective Disorders: "Relationship between sedentary behavior and depression: A mediation analysis of influential factors across the lifespan among 42,469 people in low- and middle-income countries"
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: "The Role of Exercise in Preventing and Treating Depression"
- Depression and Anxiety: "Physical activity offsets genetic risk for incident depression assessed via electronic health records in a biobank cohort study"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Exercise for Mental Health"
- Journal of Affective Disorders: "Association between sleep duration and depression in US adults: A cross-sectional study"
- Epidemiology and Psychiatric Services: "The association between sleep and depressive symptoms in US adults: data from the NHANES (2007–2014)"
- ACE: "Your Brain on Exercise: The Neuroscience Behind a Good Workout"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "BDNF gene"
- Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports: "Physical Exercise for Treatment of Mood Disorders: A Critical Review"
- The American Journal of Psychiatry: "Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study"
- JAMA Psychiatry: "Assessment of Bidirectional Relationships Between Physical Activity and Depression Among Adults: A 2-Sample Mendelian Randomization Study"
- JAMA Psychiatry: "Association Between Physical Activity and Risk of Depression A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis"
- U.S. Department of Health Services: "President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition"
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "I Walk My Dog Because It Makes Me Happy: A Qualitative Study to Understand Why Dogs Motivate Walking and Improved Health"
- Oxford Academic: "Treating Late Life Depression: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach, Workbook (1 edn)"