Exercise as Medicine for Depression

exercise mental health May 30, 2018

Did you know that 1 in 10 US adults struggle with depression? The most common way to treat depression is with antidepressant medication. Although some individuals’ depression must be treated with antidepressant medications, research shows that exercise is also an effective form of treatment.

Neurotrophic Growth Factors

When we exercise, our body releases the feel-good chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are released during high-intensity exercise and are responsible for the “runner’s high” feeling. However, endorphins are not the main chemical released that helps us fight depression. 

For many of us the greatest benefit for depression in terms of chemical releases from our body comes through low-intensity exercise sustained over time. According to Harvard, “that kind of activity spurs the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. The improvement in brain function makes you feel better.”

Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, further explains: "In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression." 

Thus, exercise helps improve depression because it releases neurotropic or growth factors which helps increase our nerve cell connections and in turn relieves depression.

The Stumbling Block of Getting Started

It’s not easy to begin a regular exercise program, especially when you are depressed. Depression can cause reduced energy, body aches, increased pain perception, a change in appetite and disturbed sleep – all of which make it hard to be motivated to exercise.

It’s also difficult to not feel down when you begin exercising and then miss part of your plan or don’t meet your daily goal.

How can you overcome this and use exercise as an aid in managing depression?

Choose something you like to do:

Using exercise to help with depression is not a onetime fix so it will take commitment and time before you feel the effects (Harvard). Choosing something you enjoy will increase your chances of staying with it. The best exercise is the one you enjoy!

Start slowly:

If you are not exercising at all, begin slowly. Start with 5 minutes of activity a day and then gradually increase it over time. Don’t expect yourself to be able to go out and run 3 miles when you do not currently run or exercise.

Track your progress:

Track your progress so you can see each week how much exercise you are able to get. Remember, what gets measured gets managed and tracking your progress will help you manage your exercise. Pay attention to what seems to work best for you! For example, perhaps mornings work better than evenings to exercise. Implement the needed adjustments to be able to reach your goals.

Don’t give up when you aren’t perfect:

Just because you miss your goal one or two days doesn’t mean you should give up. Just do your best each day and slowly build a habit over time.


Consult a physician and counselor:

Consult with your physician and counselor about integrating exercise into your depression treatment. Seek their help and encouragement in coming up with realistic goals. 


Not all depression can be cured with exercise but research is clear that it has benefits and should be implemented to help you.

Additional resources:
Harvard Health Letter, "Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression."

Mayo Clinic, "Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms."

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