Depression and exercise
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to Harvard Medical School, one out of 10 American adults struggle with depression.  While antidepressant medications are usually treatments, Harvard researchers say that exercise can be just as effective a treatment for those with mild to moderate depression.

When you experience anxiety and depression, exercise is probably the last thing you want to do. Working out, however, may reduce these symptoms and elevate your mood by:

  • Releasing brain chemicals that help you to feel good
  • Raising body temperature, which may be calming
  • Reducing immune system chemicals that can make depression worse
  • Reducing stress levels
  • Improving sleep

During exercise, the body releases endorphins, chemicals that interact with the receptors in your brain.  Endorphins can trigger positive feelings similar to that caused by morphine which can be described as “euphoria” or “runner’s high.”  After a workout, you may feel more positive and energized.  Endorphins also reduce the body’s perception of pain and can act like sedatives.

There are many general health benefits as well such as:

  • Strengthening the heart, protecting against heart disease
  • Protecting against diabetes
  • Improved brain function
  • Increasing energy levels
  • Lowering high blood pressure
  • Improving muscle strength and tone
  • Strengthening and builds bones
  • Improving sleep quality
  • Helping to decrease body fat
  • Making the body look fit and healthy

Starting an Exercise Program

While you may know the benefits of exercise intellectually, emotionally, you may be resistant to starting an exercise program. You can become more motivated to try it by setting small, achieving short-term goals.  Sessions can start at five minutes a day, continue at 10, and then increase to 15.

There are other factors to consider when planning an exercise program. These activities should be things that we enjoy doing. We need to ensure that exercise works with our schedule and fits with the time that we have available.

Beginning to Exercise

We should take it easy in the beginning with about 20 minutes. This time can be increased to 30 minutes and should occur three times a week. Exercising four or five times a week is even more beneficial. Exercise does not have to be a formal exercise program to effectively deal with anxiety and depression symptoms. Activity such as walking or housework may also help improve your mood and are beneficial to your physical health.

Physical activity expends energy and contracts muscles. Exercise is structured, planned, and repetitive movement that seeks to maintain or improve physical fitness and has the same effect on your state of mind.

Exercise and other physical activity does not require big chunks of your day. Activities can be introduced in small increments such as walking instead of using a car, gardening, and other less intense activities such as taking the stairs instead of using an elevator.

The Positive Benefits of Exercise

Becoming more self-confident: setting and meeting exercise goals, even small ones can really boost confidence and build self-esteem.

A distraction from negative thought cycles

Depression and anxiety causes our minds to go round and round in a cycle of negative thoughts.  Exercise provides a distraction that takes our minds off of our worries.  Music while we exercise also provides a new focus and can be relaxing when we feel anxious.

Social interaction

When we work out at a gym we have the opportunity to socialize with others.  People at gyms usually greet their members with a smile and words of encouragement.  Exercise classes can create a sense of camaraderie among the participants. The music at the gym is often upbeat and encouraging.  Music can also help elevate mood at home as well.

Provides a coping strategy

Exercise is a positive alternative to alcohol or drug use, which can worsen the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Keeping  us motivated to make exercise a habit

The first step to keep on is to make exercise a habit that is easy to maintain. You can establish a routine such as laying out gym clothes the night before and packing a gym bag with needed items such as a towel, change of clothes, and hygiene products. We can plan to attend classes on a regular basis or go to the gym at specific times. Making exercise a ritual helps us to stick to it. Exercise should be fun and varied so that it is not boring. 


You also need to consider any physical limitations that may limit your choice of exercise types. If in doubt or you have certain medical conditions, you should consult your doctor before beginning a fitness program.