Here’s how exercise can help with depression and how much makes a difference.
Regular exercise can help depression
“Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for both your mental and physical health,” says Adam Fry, PhD, a performance science specialist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
“Just one hour of exercise per week can significantly reduce the risk of depression and depressive symptoms.”
For example, a 2019 study found that those with a genetic predisposition to depression who exercised were less likely to develop depression than those who did no exercise at all. In fact, the study found that just 15 minutes of running or an hour of walking each day — in place of sitting — helped protect against depressive symptoms.
Also, exercise has been found to stimulate the release of endorphins, a neurotransmitter in the brain that provides pain relief, enhances feelings of pleasure and well-being, and can help lower stress levels.
According to a 2017 study in the journal Brain Plasticity, exercise can increase dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. Exercise also increases Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein that supports brain structure and function.
The best exercise for depression
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity per week.
If you’re struggling with depression or high-stress levels, it can be difficult to stick to this, and Fry says that any amount of exercise will still have benefits.
Moreover, there are plenty of activities that qualify as moderate or vigorous exercise, per the CDC. Here are just a few:
- Moderate. Walking, water aerobics, dancing, gardening, or yoga.
- Vigorous. Running, cycling, swimming laps, uphill hiking, jumping rope, or weight-lifting.
It can be important to get a combination of these different types of exercise, in order to keep yourself interested and motivated.
“Both aerobic exercise and strength training can be helpful,” says Fry. “Physical activity recommendations promote both forms of exercise, and the variety can keep things from becoming monotonous.”
In addition, researchers have found the following mental health benefits for both types of exercise:
- Moderate-intensity. A 2015 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that those who exercised at moderate intensity — which included activities like team sports, individual sports, and walking — for 150 minutes a week reported having fewer depressive symptoms, like anxiety and stress.
- Strength training. A 2018 study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that participants who did strength training exercises — such as lifting weights — significantly reduced depressive symptoms like low mood, a loss of interest in activities, and feelings of worthlessness.
- Yoga. A 2019 study published by Boston University found that people with clinical depression that took yoga classes two to three times a week reported higher levels of tranquility, positivity, physical exhaustion, as well as improved symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are many different types of yoga, and it’s easy to start learning poses on your own at home.
Overall, there really isn’t one certain type of exercise that is most effective at relieving depressive symptoms and reducing stress — it’s whatever works for you.
“I think people often get too hung up on the perfect exercise program. People are busy. Exercise programs are hard to stick to.
“My message to people is: the best kind of exercise is the exercise you will actually do. Find the type of exercise you enjoy and do that,”