Research Updates

Is exercise really a good way to self-manage depression?

Lauren Finestone

For people who are looking for a natural, drug-free way to manage their depression, a recent study confirms that exercise can be a fantastic option. It's especially important for those who may not want to take medication or go to therapy.

If you’re like me, you would have heard the advice that going for a brisk walk, a run or doing some other form of exercise is a good way to help people with depression feel better. 

But is it really? Or is this belief like a seed — we’ve heard it so often it has taken root in our minds?

You wouldn’t be wrong to wonder. Studies about how well exercise works for depression have mixed results — some say it has weak or no benefits, and others have found significant benefits. 

But these studies about exercise and depression have had some flaws, like not including only people with depression or comparing exercise to doing nothing. Also, the information isn’t that recent. Until now.

A new study addresses those problems and gives us a much clearer idea of whether exercise really does help with depression.

Why it matters

Depression is a serious mental health issue that affects a staggering 4.4% of people globally. Traditional treatments like psychotherapy and antidepressant medication work well for some people. But for others they may not be the best option. And sadly, many people with depression don’t receive any treatment at all, which can have far-reaching consequences

That’s why it's so important to explore other cheaper and easier ways to manage its often debilitating symptoms.

And the answer is…

A recent meta-analysis (a study that combined the findings from 41 studies about exercise and depression) confirms that, yes, exercise can be a good option for treating depression. 

This positive effect was found to be true of both aerobic and resistance training and regardless of the setting or level of supervision. But aerobic exercise was found to be particularly effective — especially when it’s done in a group setting with a supervisor and moderate intensity aerobic activity.

Exercise helps depression by releasing brain chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins 
are natural painkillers and mood elevators and helps reduce stress and anxiety. This is good news for people who are reluctant to rely on medication or go to therapy. 

This study did still have some limitations. (For example, it only included studies published in English). But the results about the positive effects of exercise still provide a compelling argument for healthcare practitioners to consider exercise as a treatment option for their patients.

And another caution: because the studies in this review had different results, it's up to a doctor to work with the patient to decide if exercise is the best choice for each person.

But the message is that whether you're struggling with depression yourself, or you're a healthcare practitioner looking for alternative treatments for your patients, it's clear that exercise can be a powerful tool in the self-management toolkit. 

So don't just stand there, get moving! Your mental health may just thank you.

Original research

Heissel, A., Heinen, D., Brokmeier, L. L., Skarabis, N., Kangas, M., Vancampfort, D., ... & Schuch, F. (2023). Exercise as medicine for depressive symptoms? A systematic review and meta-analysis with meta-regression. British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Published 14 February, 2023