Can Exercise Help Depression?


Can exercise help depression?  According to a study from the Black Dog Institute, even small amounts of exercise can help.  In fact, as little as an hour a week – of any intensity – may be helpful, they say.

The study is an important one as it was the largest of its kind conducted to date.  It included 33,908 Norwegian adults who had their anxiety and depression symptoms as well as their exercise followed for more than 11 years.

The data for the study came from the Health of Nord-Trøndelag County (HUNT study), a large health survey which was done between January 1984 and June 1997.

At the onset of the study, participants were asked about how often they exercised and at what intensity.  During follow-up, they filled out a self-report depression questionnaire called the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale in order to evaluate any depression or anxiety that they were experiencing.  In the study, the researchers also accounted for any variables – such as substance abuse, physical illness and levels of social support – which might influence the outcome of the study.

The study found that people who did no exercise at all had a 44% greater chance of become depressed, compared to those who exercised one or two hours a week.  However, exercise did not have the same protective effect against anxiety.

According to the researchers, 12% of all depression cases could have been prevented had the participants been exercising for at least an hour per week.

Lead author Samuel Harvey notes that it’s been known for quite some time that exercise can help existing depression, but it was not known how well it could help prevent future depression.  He says these findings are “exciting” because they show that even small amounts of exercise can provide big benefits.

Although it’s not known exactly why exercise helps prevent depression, the researchers believe it’s a combination of physical as well as social benefits that are derived from performing physical activity.

What If You Don’t Feel Like Exercising?

But, what if you really just don’t feel like exercising, no matter how much you know it will benefit your depression?  Try some of the following tips:

Start small and build on that.

Even though this particular study recommends an hour per week, you have to start with where you are.  Even if you can only do 5 minutes a day, this is a start towards healthier habits.  As you get stronger, you can add more minutes.

Do something that you enjoy. 

Exercise doesn’t have to be any particular activity.  If you hate going to the gym, but you like taking a walk around your neighborhood, do that.  Even playing with your kids or cleaning your house counts as exercise.  The important thing is that you are getting more physical activity.

Get a workout buddy. 

Not only can your friend help you stay motivated, you may find that talking with someone on a regular basis is a great way to gain support when you are dealing with difficult emotions.

Use music to motivate yourself and lift your mood. 

Exercising to an upbeat play list can help you get moving.  Plus, it’s harder to feel down when you are listening to happy music.

Reward yourself.

After each completed workout session, give yourself a small treat like a relaxing bubble bath.  Or, download an app like Sweatcoin that literally pays you to exercise.  Do whatever works for you to make exercise a happier, more fulfilling activity.

Be forgiving of yourself.

Some days you just won’t be able to work up the motivation to exercise, no matter how hard you try.  When that happens, forgive yourself and move forward.  Depression is a real illness.  It’s not your fault that you feel tired and uninterested in life.

The study dealing with exercise and depression prevention was published on October 3, 2017 in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Nancy Schimelpfening, MS

Nancy Schimelpfening is the founder of Depression Sanctuary. Unless otherwise stated, all of the content on Depression Sanctuary is written by and maintained by Nancy. Nancy has a master’s degree in community health education from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. She was the (now expert on depression from 1998-2016. She has also written for other online publications, including Healthline, Health Digest, and MindBodyGreen.