How Exercise Can Combat Depression

Has the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on your mental health? Good news—exercise has been shown to be an effective way to prevent and relieve depression. Get-Fit Guy, Dr. Jonathan Su, breaks down 7 ways exercise can protect against symptoms of depression.

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
4-minute read
Episode #557
The Quick And Dirty

Multiple scientific studies have shown that exercise has antidepressant effects. There are both biological and mental reasons this may be the case. Regardless, even adding a simple exercise to your daily routine may help combat symptoms of depression.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on mental health. Recent surveys show that nearly a quarter of adults in the United States currently report symptoms of depression, more than doubling pre-pandemic levels.

You’ve likely seen this with friends, family, or colleagues. You might have even experienced it yourself. I’ve certainly noticed the stress of the pandemic weighting on me and several of my clients. 

The good news is that moderate intensity aerobic exercise has been shown to be an effective way for preventing and relieving depression. Although not the end-all-be-all to treating depression and reaching out to a mental health professional is highly encouraged, 30 to 45 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise 3 to 5 days a week can help significantly. 

Effects of exercise on depression

Scientific studies have consistently shown that exercise has antidepressant effects. A review that analyzed data from 49 studies found that people with higher levels of physical activity had a 17% lower odds of depression than people with lower levels of physical activity. Another review found that low cardiorespiratory fitness, a sign of physical inactivity, was associated with a 64% higher risk of depression. 

Now I know some of you may not be convinced by these studies that exercise has antidepressant effects. It’s reasonable to believe that what the results of these studies actually show are that depressed people exercise less. 

However, one study with over 60,000 participants showed that replacing sedentary behavior with moderate-to-vigorous activity in people with depression lowered depression symptoms significantly more than compared to either sleep or light activity.

How exercise may combat depression 

How does exercise offer protection against depression? It turns out that there may be several biological and mental factors at play and here’s a summary of some that may be responsible:

1. Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt throughout life in response to experience. Depression appears to be associated with dysregulation of some of these functions. Although more research is needed, exercise could counteract some of these impairments seen in people with depression.

2. Inflammation

People with depression have been found to have elevated levels of inflammatory markers and it has been proposed that inflammation may play a role in depression. Exercise has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects and it’s possible that exercise may reduce depressive symptoms by reducing inflammation.

3. Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids are chemical messengers produced by your body that help regulate various processes such as pain, mood, and stress. The endocannabinoid system has been implicated in depression and aerobic exercise has been shown to improve mood and activate the endocannabinoid system in people with major depressive disorder. 

4. Stress response 

Our reactions to stress, also known as the fight-or-flight response, is a survival mechanism that enables us to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health and is associated with depression. Studies show that habitual exercise helps dampen our stress response which can protect us from depression. 

5. Self-esteem 

Self-esteem is a person's subjective evaluation of their self-worth. People with depression have lower levels of self-esteem, which may contribute to a sense of worthlessness. It’s possible that exercise can improve self-esteem and physical self-perception, thereby reducing depressive symptoms.

6. Social support 

Social support refers to feeling that you are cared for and have assistance available from other people. People with depression often feel a lack of social support. Physical activity provides opportunities for social engagement, which can enhance social support and produce antidepressant effects.

7. Self-efficacy 

Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task. People with depression have lower levels of self-efficacy, which may contribute towards their symptoms. Engaging in exercise improves your physical abilities, which may increase feelings of self-efficacy. 

Simple exercise suggestions 

I mentioned earlier that the key to preventing and relieving depression is moderate intensity aerobic exercise. Essentially, you need to perform 30 to 45 minutes of exercise 3 to 5 days a week at a pace where your breathing quickens and you break a sweat, yet you’re still able to carry on a conversation. Let’s talk about how you can implement this into your daily life. 

First, make sure to make exercise as enjoyable as possible by choosing a form of exercise that you like. Is it walking, running, hiking, biking, swimming, or something else? It’s difficult to start or stick with anything that you don’t like, so it’s important to do only what you like when it comes to exercise. Making exercise enjoyable also means exercising during a time of day when you feel motivated. Is this in the morning, afternoon, or evening? The best time to exercise is when you feel most energized and motivated. 

Second, put exercise down on your to-do list. I find that this makes the task of exercising more of a commitment and less of an option. Plus, you get the pleasure of crossing it off your list when you’re done. 

Third, set a goal so you have something to work towards. For example, if you enjoy running, consider a couch to 5k program  designed for beginners to gradually build up your running ability so you can eventually run a 5k without stopping.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on mental health. The good news is that exercise has been shown to be an effective way for preventing and relieving depression. Get-Fit Guy, Dr. Jonathan Su, explains 7 ways that exercise can protect against depression. 

Fourth, start an exercise group by inviting friends along or join an intramural sports team. You’ll be able to hold each other accountable, help each other stay motivated, and reap the benefits of having social support. 

5-day exercise challenge

Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day exercise challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to perform 30 to 45 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise 3 to 5 days a week. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104. 

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.