The Antidepressant Effects of Exercise and Why It’s Physical Therapy for the Mind

Exercise and its antidepressant effect


There’s no doubt that exercise is great for physical health, but did you know it also has perks for your mental health? A heart-pumping workout helps with sleep, boosts energy, fires up your motivation, and can even combat stress and anxiety. Who doesn’t have some stress to manage in their life? Exercise can help you do that.

More serious than the garden variety stress people feel is depression, a mood disorder resulting from the psychological and physiological responses to a stressful or traumatic event, but it can also occur without a triggering event. It’s marked by overwhelming feelings of sadness and despair, apathy, loss of interest, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, poor concentration, and memory problems. Depression may occur in response to chronic health conditions too.

People who suffer from depression know how hard it can be to get out of bed in the morning, much less launch into a workout. It’s a serious mental health condition that affects how a person feels, thinks, and functions. It’s more than temporary “sadness” and the symptoms can linger for months to years.

The Downsides of Antidepressants

How common is the problem of depression? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost one in ten Americans suffers from depression. While these medications are effective at relieving mild to moderate depression, they have unpleasant side effects that may deter patients from continuing long-term use. Antidepressants also work slowly, typically taking up to three weeks to cause mood improvements.

Concerns about the side effects are growing. A report by STAT, a national health policy news service, “The use of antidepressants has risen sharply over the past 20 years, even as a chorus of critics has warned that they may be doing more harm than good.” The United States is not the only country where this is true. In fact, there are dozens of countries in which antidepressants are used at an alarming rate.

Treating Depression Naturally with Exercise

If you’re suffering from depression you can’t shake and are having a hard time functioning, talk to a health care provider. Don’t try to deal with a severe case of depression without professional help and don’t stop anti-depressants without talking to your health care provider. But if you’re feeling a bit down but still functioning well, you can help yourself by making simple lifestyle changes, like starting a workout program.

Even if you see your doctor and they prescribe medications, exercise can still help you better deal with depression. More healthcare practitioners are recognizing the role exercise plays in mental health and well-being and know that working out can build a stronger self-esteem and inspire greater confidence.

What if your doctor says it’s okay to try lifestyle changes over medications? Can exercise have comparable effects to an antidepressant for treating depression? A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that exercise was just as effective as drug therapy for the treatment of major depression. The study looked at the outcomes of both drug therapy and exercise as treatment options for patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) and found that exercise performed as well as prescription medications.

The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

How does exercise help with depression?  It’s a great pick-me-up when you’re feeling down or stressed. A workout increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to your brain, and that helps you break the cycle of sadness and worry. Exercise releases endorphins, which are feel-good hormones that improve your mood and help reduce stress, both of which are related to depression.

Plus, there’s some evidence that exercise affects neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, that improve mood and motivation. These are the same neurotransmitters that prescription anti-depressants alter. But unlike antidepressants, exercise has only positive side effects.

Beyond its effect on mood, research shows that aerobic workouts may enhance memory, mood, and, possibly, protect against cognitive decline. For a better mood and brain health, you can’t beat a workout!

The Best Forms of Exercise for Depression

What kind of exercise is best for depression? While physical activity in general is a good idea for mild to moderate depression, there are a number of exercise techniques that are effective for beating the blues. For instance, studies show aerobic exercise — such as running, swimming, or cycling — is beneficial for depression. Aerobic exercise boosts the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) that helps nerves in your brain form new connection. Studies show people who are depressed have lower levels of BDNF.

Strength training helps too by boosting self-esteem. Plus, there are social aspects of exercise. Working out with other people or becoming part of an online fitness community leads to less social isolation and shared goals. At the end of the day, the best exercise for improving your mood will be one you enjoy. So, do more of what you enjoy and add variety to your workouts. If it’s something you hate, you’ll find a reason not to do it. Think of exercise as leisure or “play” time and you’ll see it in a more positive light.

Mind-body exercises that help the body relax and that lower the stress hormone cortisol, like yoga, may also be beneficial for depression. One study found that 8 weeks of hatha yoga was effective for treating the symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression.

It’s important to note that exercise isn’t a guaranteed cure for depression. Most people still need some form of cognitive talk therapy to work through mental health issues that trigger the symptoms. However, exercise can be a supportive treatment even if you take medications. So, start slow, but give exercise a try! Once you get going, you may discover that working out helps you control those feelings of sadness and improves your self-esteem too.


Dwivedi Y. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor: role in depression and suicide. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2009;5:433-449. doi:10.2147/ndt.s5700.

Netz Y. Is the Comparison between Exercise and Pharmacologic Treatment of Depression in the Clinical Practice Guideline of the American College of Physicians Evidence-Based?. Front Pharmacol. 2017;8:257. Published 2017 May 15. doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00257.

TheAtlantic.com. “For Depression, Prescribing Exercise Before Medication”

MDEdge.com. “Exercise for depression: It really does help–here’s how to get patients moving”

Prathikanti S, Rivera R, Cochran A, Tungol JG, Fayazmanesh N, Weinmann E. Treating major depression with yoga: A prospective, randomized, controlled pilot trial. PLoS One. 2017;12(3):e0173869. Published 2017 Mar 16. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0173869


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