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What is the Relationship Between Exercise and Depression?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Exercise and depression are closely linked. Regular exercise can provide benefits to people with mood disorders such as depression as well as people with anxiety. This connection between exercise and depression has been explored in a number of studies, some of which were very large. These studies have illustrated that people of all ages with an assortment of mental health conditions can benefit from exercise.

One problem that people with depression can face is that it is very difficult to get motivated. It can be hard to establish and adhere to an exercise regimen when it is difficult to get out of bed in the morning, let alone put on sneakers and go for a jog. Studies on exercise and depression have shown, however, that a little bit of exercise can make a big difference. People don't need to run marathons or compete in Ironman Triathlons in order to benefit from exercise.

Simply walking around the block, working in a garden, swimming, or doing yoga can provide benefits. Exercise can address some of the symptoms of depression by releasing chemicals in the body that act as mood elevators and mood stabilizers. In addition, it increases body temperature, which according to the Mayo Clinic, can elevate mood and make people feel more calm. Exercise also benefits the immune system and provides a number of related benefits for the heart, lungs, muscles, and joints.

People who exercise regularly tend to have better self esteem and a more positive outlook on life. This can directly contribute to the management of depression by elevating the patient's mood. Exercise also reduces anxiety, making people feel more calm. For people with anxiety disorders, exercise can be a powerful tool for managing anxiety and helping the patient cope. Individuals who may feel ashamed about going to therapy may find that the connection between exercise and depression helps them manage their depression in a productive way.

The mental benefits of exercise can be paired with cognitive therapy and other forms of depression treatment, including medications. A mental health care provider can evaluate a patient to determine what kinds of treatment would be most appropriate and to help the patient develop a routine that is achievable. Studies have suggested that some providers are aware of the link between exercise and depression but do not act on it, and patients may want to specifically ask if exercising is something that might have benefits. Patients may find that as they start exercising, they get more motivated, and are able to engage in more rigorous and demanding exercise routines over time. Patients can also experience benefits by exercising with a buddy or in a group. This can reduce the feelings of isolation that are sometimes experienced by people with depression.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By clintflint — On Jan 13, 2014

@pleonasm - There are well established connections between physical exercise and depression. It's basically the best thing you can do for yourself in terms of health and well-being.

Personally, I think it's got as much to do with being able to take the time to get your mind away from things as it does with the exercise itself.

By pleonasm — On Jan 13, 2014

@Fa5t3r - The main thing that helps me is to just be in a routine. Even if the rest of my day is chaotic, I know that I will go to bed at a certain time and get up early so that I can go for a walk.

I try not to even give myself the option of not going, because I'm always worried that I'll just stop altogether if I do that.

And I always feel a lot easier and happier when I've had some exercise. I don't know why but it just seems to make a lot of the stress and anxiety that I usually feel go away.

By Fa5t3r — On Jan 12, 2014

I find when I'm feeling down that the best way to get motivated is to convince myself that all I have to do is go around the block. Generally, if I've got my music on and it's a nice day, then I will get to the end of the block and realize I feel good enough to keep going.

I try not to be too hard on myself when I can't manage to go for a walk or a run though. It's a part of managing stress and it doesn't help to generate more stress by blaming yourself.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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