Move Out of Depression, Literally: Depression and Exercise

Just a little is all you need—the advantages of exercise

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

A variety of studies demonstrate that one way to overcome depression is to make yourself more active, which can be challenging. One of the primary—indeed, maybe one of the most defining symptoms of depression—is a sharply reduced feeling of motivation. Professor Vishton explains why you should still push through.

Woman working out at home
A quick start to battling depression is to start exercising, feeling better soon follows, and the benefits can be substantial and long-lasting. Photo By antoniodiaz / Shutterstock

Research on Exercise and Depression

When you experience depression, you feel an aversion to doing things like exercise. A wide range of research, however, suggests that physical activity is one of the best things you can do to battle that depressed feeling.

Studies of how exercise affects depression date back to at least 1981. One large study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine involved 156 participants who reported symptoms of major depression. 

They were randomly assigned to three different experimental groups. A medication group was prescribed a typically-used depression medication—Zoloft. An exercise group participated in a daily program of moderate aerobic exercise. A third group did both of these things.

After 16 weeks, about 65% of the participants reported that their symptoms had been reduced to the extent that they no longer fit a diagnosis of major depression. The medication groups reached this state faster than the exercise alone group, but by 16 weeks, there were no significant differences between those two different groups. Exercise seems to work a little more slowly than medication, but the overall effects seem to be about the same.

A follow-up study was conducted in which 133 of those participants were recruited six months after the end of the original study. It was found that for the people who continued with the exercise program, the rate of depression was significantly lower. The exercise thus seems to work more slowly at the onset than medication over the first few weeks, but the lasting effects of exercise seem to be substantially greater.

A Little Exercise Moves the Dial

How much exercise do you need to do to get these effects? Several studies have found effects like this with even small amounts of activity. 

One experiment found that walking about 35 minutes per day, five days a week was enough. Another found that 60 minutes of walking three times per week was sufficient. 

Overall, this is 175–180 minutes per week. In one study, fast walking for 15 minutes a day, five times a week produced significant benefits. That’s only 75 minutes per week.

You don’t need to become an Olympic professional level athlete to boost your mood. Just a moderate amount of activity, on a regular basis, for an extended period of time, seems to produce clear benefits. 

If you’re depressed, it might be the last thing that you want to do. However, if you take your medicine and increase your level of activity, the benefits can be substantial and long-lasting.

Why Exercise Works

Why does exercise work? Why does it boost your mood? Why does exercise reverse the effects of depression? 

Any answer to these types of questions has to start with a theory about what causes depression to begin with. One of the central organizing principles of the human brain—the human body in general, actually—is the concept of homeostasis. 

Your body maintains a very consistent set of internal conditions. The concentration of salt in your bloodstream stays within a few parts per million of the optimal concentration all the time—even if you drink a big glass of water or eat a big bag of salty potato chips. 

Your body temperature stays right around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit—even a few degrees higher or lower than that, and it will disrupt many of the thousands of chemical reactions that have to take place to support normal function of the body and the brain as well.

What exercise does is disrupt your equilibrium. Therefore, exercise has the power to interrupt your depression and substantially boost your mood, or at least take you out of your depression.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.