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Can exercise be used to help fight depression?


Posted by Justin Matheson of Anxiety Really Sucks under Wellbeing on 29 April 2013 at 11:00 PM

Justin Matheson is a psychology student in Montreal who is recovering from depression and anxiety through a mixture of lifestyle choices and psychotherapy. He's written this article to outline how exercise can be beneficial in overcoming depression:

Justin Matheson: Anxiety Really Sucks
I chose exercise over medications, but it’s not the right choice for everyone - always make sure to talk to your doctor. I am the author of the blog Anxiety Really Sucks
 which is about recovering from anxiety and living a healthier life.

Depression is a severe mental illness that affects about 16% of the adult U.S. population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression can involve many symptoms, but typically presents with low mood, difficulty concentrating, change in appetite, feelings of hopelessness and low-grade aches and pains. 

The first line of treatment for major depression is generally a combination of anti-depressant medication and psychotherapy. Unfortunately, anti-depressants are accompanied by a profile of unpleasant side effects, and for those individuals suffering from mild depression, the risks may not outweigh the benefits. To find the answer to this puzzling dilemma, we look to exercise. It has been known for many years that regular exercise offers a host of medical benefits, such as protecting against heart disease and improving immune function. More recently, medical researchers have been exploring exercise as a supplement to psychiatric care. 

While the importance of exercise in the treatment of depression has not quite hit North America yet, physicians in the UK commonly prescribe regular exercise as a treatment for a host of illnesses, mental or physical. It may seem bizarre, but actually, many studies have found regular exercise to be just as effective as long-term anti-depressant use in managing depression symptoms. 

So how can you benefit from exercise if you’re depressed?

Well, the jury is still out on what types of exercise are best for improving mental health. Some studies have found that only moderate aerobic exercise is helpful, while other studies have found no differences in the effectiveness of different types of exercise. For now, it seems that the only requirement is that you get moving on a daily basis. 

Here are some tips for achieving a higher therapeutic effect from your exercise:

  • Work out with a partner (or a team). Social support is a crucial factor in overcoming any mental illness. Loneliness and alienation are common sources of roadblocks that will prevent you from overcoming your depression. So why not combine exercise and social support? Instead of running on the treadmill alone in your basement, go for a run outside with a close friend or family member. Even better, join an exercise class or a sports team. 
    Baseball with team

  • Exercise outside. Depression is often linked to insomnia, and there is no better (and more natural) cure for insomnia than increasing your daily exposure to natural light. Even if insomnia isn’t a problem for you, years of research have shown that people who spend more time outside have lower rates of anxiety and depression. So stop hitting the gym in the summer months, and try going for a long hike, cycle or run outside instead. 
    Cycle Outdoors

  • Practice mindfulness while you exercise. Mindfulness is a powerful tool that is all about staying focused on the present moment and trying to rid yourself of ruminative thoughts. You can practice some simple mindfulness by focusing on the sights and sounds around you as you go for a run. A good way to incorporate mindfulness into your exercise routine is to go running without music – keep yourself focused on your surroundings, and don’t let your mind wander. Research has confirmed that being able to focus on the present moment and ignore intrusive thoughts is a great way to ward off depression.
    Yoga Class

One of the biggest problems in relying on exercise to treat depression is motivation. Unlike taking a pill, exercise requires focus and commitment. Staying motivated is something that is difficult for most people, let alone those who are clinically depressed. Since lack of motivation is a common symptom, depressed individuals need more support in order to stick to an exercise regime. 

In order to stay motivated, try to stick to concrete activities like exercise classes rather than individual activities. If you happen to be interested in team sports like soccer or hockey then joining a team can be another layer of motivation to keep you active. Joining a team certainly isn’t necessary, but make sure that you have some accountability for your activity so that you don’t let low motivation stop you from recovery. 

We all know that exercise is good for us, and yet we often let it slide, only to our own downfall. But instead of looking at exercise as an activity that’s great when you have free time, look at it instead as your own personal prescription. Skipping a day of staying active is like skipping a day of therapy. It may be hard to stay active for the first few months, but soon it will become reflexive. 

  • Encourage

    encouraged this.



    I've been struggling with depression for many years now. Since I started running about 3 years ago, I've noticed a slight improvement, and my physical health is certainly better than it was in high school, yet I'm still a far cry from where I want to be mentally and emotionally. Exercise will only do so much. What you need most of all is SUPPORT. Without that, the smallest challenge seems insurmountable. ASK FOR HELP. And if it doesn't come right away, KEEP ASKING. Not everybody can help. Not everybody can understand. But SOMEBODY can. And somebody WILL. I've got to believe that. Because I'm still looking for that somebody. And I refuse to quit. No matter how much I want to.


    good article. I agree Melanie Support is vital and its hard to ask. I think this article was just coming form the one side of how exercise can be a help and on that I think this is a good article as exercise has certainly helped me. It also gave me 'an out' when I could not communicate what was going and I couldn't face that fight - with myself! I put the trainers on and would train and it would be like a therapy session without the extortionate price tag. once id exercised the emotions through/out I was able to deal with stuff better and then communicate better therefore enabling those who wanted to support me, a way in. Thanks for writing about this its good to see this subject being talked about - its hard for people when the issues are not visible and they have no idea how to interact with people where its inside the support is required


    If I am feeling lethargic, disinterested and lacking motivation I summons all my discipline and willpower and order myself to do some exercise. I have never known exercise not to work in reversing my mood. However, the key is to be able to garner the strength to actually put the runners on and take that first step. This is where the support of family and friends can be the crucial link. I would love to read more about the physiological benefits of exercise, and the role of endorphins and oxytocin.

    encouraged this.


    Very nice article!! I had been depressed for about 4 years until I decided to look for help. I started psychoterapy, weight lifting and also doing one of my passions I had quit years before: kung fu. It really seems the key to overcome the problem is first to consider yourself as someone that needs help, which sometimes is frowned upon as a sign of "weakness"... It's totally the opposite in my opinion; and secondly, motivation (so look for something you REALLY like, or even love to do - kung fu, in my case). Im proud to say my problem is solved, although I still got to deal with some anxiety from time to time, but the depression is gone, and exercise was definitely the most helpful thing in the proccess! Stay focused and never give up! =)


    Biggest hurdle is getting yourself there when you feel like this. The motivation is key and if you think to yourself 'what's the point?' then you will struggle to give exercise your all. Perhaps getting a bike for starters and just riding down to your local shops instead of driving, or down to the station rather than getting the bus. The difficulty is facing going into the gym again when all the manifestations of depression are surfacing, i.e. panic and anxiety - but starting a journey from your house to a destination for a reason could be a simple motivator to get you back into it

    Justin M and João A encouraged this.

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