exercise reduces depression

Exercise versus anti-depressants

This article explores how exercise reduces depression.

When working with clients who have clinical depression I ask them to do some hard exercise at least once a day. The reason for that is my observation that hard exercise tends to improve mood. Since depression is a mood disorder it follows that exercise will have a favourable impact on my depressed clients.

Studies show that daily aerobic exercise was as – if not more – effective than anti-depressants in mildly depressed patients. In some cases exercise was also shown to be more effective than therapy! In cases of moderate to severe depression the general recommendation is that all three modalities – psychotherapy, antidepressants and exercise are considered together as treatment options.

We also know that exercise fosters endorphin release – which elevates mood, increases calm, and reduces the anxiety that so often comes with depression. Thus we have two clear benefits from exercise: an uplift in mood, and increased calm. It follows from that that mental health in non-depressed people will benefit also from regular exercise

How exercise improves brain function

Exercise improves not only mood and general calm; it also increases neurogenesis – the growth of new brain cells.

A study at Princeton University showed how exercise triggered neurogenesis – the growth of new brain cells which were resistant to stress. One group of rats who exercised on a running board daily for six weeks were compared with another group which had not. Both groups were then given a stressful ordeal (they were forced to swim in cold water, which rats hate to do). The rats which had been allowed to exercise proved to be far more resilient than the others. And brain scans showed why. The ‘exercise group’ had grown new neurons which were not switched on by stress, and kept the rats calm.

The same applies to humans too. In one study on patients with Parkinson’s disease it was shown that regular exercise also created neurogenesis. Given that Parkinson’s disease leads to the gradual death of specific neurons this finding indicates that exercise reduces your chances of developing it. If you are growing new brain cells faster than they can be killed off that means you will reverse, or at least slow down, the ageing process, as well as progressive diseases like Parkinson’s.

Exercise reduces depression

Given the clear benefits for people with mental health issues, especially depression, exercise programs should be included in any course of psychotherapy. These programs refer to walking, running, Yoga, Tai-chi, Pilates, weight-lifting and trampolining. Or a combination of any of these.


Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash


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