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Does Exercise Reduce the Risk of Depression?

Emma Loker, BSc Psychology

Written by

Emma Loker, BSc Psychology

Last updated August 24, 2022

Does Exercise Reduce the Risk of Depression?

Exercise works wonders. It can help protect the body from various health conditions, including stroke, high blood pressure, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and many forms of cancer.

But that’s not the end of it. Exercise has also proven highly effective at reducing the risk of psychological conditions like anxiety and depression.

Below, we uncover the ins and outs of exercise’s benefits for depression and explore ways to increase your motivation to exercise.

What is Depression?

The term “depression” refers to a debilitating psychological condition. Depression isn’t just a short-term feeling of unhappiness - it’s characterized by a state of low mood that lasts for weeks, months, or even years.

Often, those who have depression will feel deeply unhappy, hopeless, and lack self-esteem. These individuals may find no enjoyment in previously-pleasurable activities and experience periods of low energy and lethargy.

Depression can also lead to, or be caused by, negative thoughts and cognitive distortions. These beliefs about the world, yourself, or others are often pessimistic and do not reflect the real environment. Examples of negative thoughts are:

  • “No one loves me.”
  • “I’m a failure.”
  • “Others aren’t to be trusted.”
  • “The world is unfair.”

While we may all experience these thoughts at one point or another, for depressed individuals, these may be their everyday beliefs. But can exercise help?

To find out more about depression, check out our Complete Depression Guide.

Can Exercise Reduce the Risk of Depression?

Extensive research has gone into answering this very question. And the answer? A resounding yes. Exercise is highly beneficial in reducing the risk of depression. The benefits are long-lasting, and it doesn’t matter what type of exercise you engage in. Let’s take a look at the research.

A study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that as little as 35 minutes of physical activity a day can help prevent new depressive episodes, even if you’re at genetic risk of having depression.

They analyzed the data of around 8,000 people and concluded that you’re more likely to receive a depression diagnosis if you’re genetically at risk for the condition. However, both high-intensity and low-intensity exercises reduce the risk of depression.

High-Intensity Activities

  • Running
  • Speed walking
  • High-intensity interval training
  • Aerobics
  • Dance
  • Exercise machines

Low-Intensity Activities

  • Yoga
  • Stretching
  • Cycling
  • Rowing
  • A light walk
  • Swimming

They also found that adding 4 hours of exercise to your weekly routine could reduce your risk of experiencing a new depressive episode by 17%.

And according to a 2004 meta-analysis by Craft and Perna, exercise doesn’t just prevent depression; it helps to lessen the severity of depressive symptoms. These effects are long-lasting - participants showed that their gains from an exercise training program still had a positive impact at a 12-month follow-up.

Evidence also demonstrates that some forms of exercise may be as effective as other esteemed treatment methods, such as psychotherapy and medication. In fact, according to a 10-month follow-up study, physical activity may be more effective than medication in the long term.

How Does Exercise Help Depression?

Exercise helps reduce the risk of depression and the severity of its symptoms in several ways. Firstly, it promotes the release of feel-good hormones called endorphins. These are part of the body’s natural reward system; they improve our sense of well-being upon release.

Physical activity influences the brain, too. Exercise can stimulate hippocampal nerve cell growth, decrease inflammation and help fuel your body with more oxygen.

Not only does it do this, but your brain begins to rewire itself as a result of exercise, creating new neural pathways that improve your memory, facilitate emotion regulation, and alter how you perceive the world.

Exercise also works as a welcome distraction from the negative thought cycle characteristic of depression. One of the major markers of depression is a general pessimism or ‘cup half empty’ mentality, as we described earlier.

By providing a distraction, exercise helps to step away from these negative thoughts and gain some clarity over them. As it also reduces stress and anxiety by preventing the release of the stress hormone cortisol, exercise can lessen the frequency and intensity of these thoughts, too.

Typically, exercise goes hand-in-hand with goals and challenges. Working towards these can provide motivation, and meeting them can improve your confidence and mood. More on that next!

How to Motivate Yourself to Exercise When You’re Depressed

Low energy is a common symptom of depression, so getting motivated to exercise isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes, it may be challenging enough to get out of bed in the morning.

Nevertheless, there are some ways you can help motivate yourself to exercise when you’re depressed.

Set SMART Goals

Setting goals allows you to identify a plan of action, which helps with motivation. But goals shouldn’t be generic and vague - evidence demonstrates that unclear, unrealistic goals can actually worsen depression rather than lessen its symptoms. So, goals need to be:

  • Specific: Individual to you and rich in detail, leaving nothing up for interpretation.
  • Measurable: Keeping your goals measurable allows you to track your progress over time, boosting motivation.
  • Achievable: Be realistic - you do yourself no favors by setting a goal you can’t possibly achieve.
  • Relevant: Think about your ultimate goal - what do you want to achieve? Reduce your depressive symptoms? Prevent depression?
  • Time-bound: Give yourself a deadline; it’ll help keep you motivated.

Choose an Activity You Enjoy

If you find the activity enjoyable, you’ll likely continue to do it - this effect is called Hedonic Motivation, and evidence demonstrates it works wonders. For example, you may not fancy going for a run, but a leisurely walk in the local park may be more up your street?

Conclusion

Depression is a highly debilitating condition affecting how you see the world, others, and yourself. Evidence shows that exercise is an effective treatment method to lessen the severity of depressive symptoms and even protect those with a genetic predisposition for the condition.

But exercise requires motivation and energy, two things those with depression may struggle with. To increase your motivation and energize you for a workout, try setting yourself SMART goals and engaging in an activity you enjoy.

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