Exercise and Major Depression

Learn how exercise and physical activity can change your brain chemistry and support your major depression treatment plan.

Exercise is prescribed for a wide variety of health conditions — from heart disease to diabetes. Science shows being active can improve your physical and mental health, and make positive changes in your brain chemistry. But if you’re battling major depression, the thought of working out may seem unthinkable. Here’s some information about the benefits of exercise that may change your mind.

Exercise and Nerve Growth    Early brain chemistry research found that mice living in an exercise-friendly environment stopped acting depressed after a stressful social experience — while mice who didn’t exercise stayed depressed. Scientists attribute the mice’s recovery to the growth of new brain nerves caused by exercise.  This and other research has led scientists to understand how brain nerve growth works in humans, too. Adults affect their brain chemistry through experiences — such as physical activities — and how they respond to them. The proteins largely responsible for the brain’s ability to adapt and change are called neurotrophins. Antidepressants affect neurotrophins in the brain — and so does exercise.

Benefits of Exercise Therapy for Depression In addition to stimulating new nerve growth and improving your ability to think, remember, and learn, exercise boosts serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins in your brain. These neurotransmitters help you calm down and focus. In studies, exercise therapy has also shown an antidepressant effect.

One Duke University researcher, James Blumenthal, PhD, has been studying exercise and MDD for over a decade. “Based on the best available evidence to date,” Dr. Blumenthal believes that “exercise may be generally comparable to medication in the treatment of MDD.” Similar studies continue to find at least modest clinical benefit for exercise and better mental health. But don’t self-treat your depression symptoms or try to get through your recovery with exercise alone. Talk to your doctor about treatment and self-care options — including exercise — that are right for you.

Adding Exercise to Your Treatment Plan Once you start exercising, you’re likely to notice some changes in your symptoms right away. “Simply moving more and sitting less will make a difference in how you feel,” says exercise physiologist and dietitian Amy Ogle, MS, RD. “And if you typically exercise alone, consider working out with a group or partner because the social connection helps lessen depressive symptoms.”

Shoot for at least 2 1/2 hours of exercise in a week. Strength training counts toward that time, too. Just remember to check with your doctor first, especially if you have another medical condition.

“Sticking to a plan and following your progress,” Ms. Ogle adds, “will renew your sense of self-mastery and control.”  You can progress to the following routine:

  • 5-10 min warm-up, gently moving upper and lower body in full range of motion
  • 30 min aerobic exercise, such as walking, light jogging, swimming, biking or a group exercise class. You should be able to talk, but not comfortably sing.
  • 5 min cool-down and stretching