There’s a veritable mountain of research to support the physical benefits of regular exercise. But studying its effect on mental states is a lot harder—emotions aren’t as easily measured as physical effects, and assessing them depends on the subjective reporting of the person experiencing them (or the observations of people with whom that person interacts).
That disclaimer noted, scientific studies have confirmed fairly consistently what exercisers have reported for millennia: that exercise is good for the mind as well as the body. Studies have found that it can improve mood, reduce anxiety, and produce a sense of well-being. This provides the positive feedback that encourages us to keep training. What’s more, evidence has been accumulating that exercise can reduce depression in many people, and may even help prevent it in the first place.
Sound body, sound mind
A review by the independent Cochrane Collaboration, based on 35 studies, concluded that exercise is moderately effective for reducing depressive symptoms in adults, compared with no therapy. In a small number of studies, it provided effects comparable to—though not greater than—antidepressants or therapy. The reviewers noted, however, that when studies of poorer quality (they weren’t adequately controlled, for example), the difference between exercise and no therapy became less conclusive.
A second review, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, included 25 studies and found that people who exercise regularly, even at low levels (such as walking or gardening), are less likely to subsequently develop depression.
And a British study published in JAMA Psychiatry, which followed 11,135 people (initially in their early twenties) for more than 25 years, found that the more physically active they were, the less likely they were to have symptoms of depression. Sedentary people who started exercising three times a week, for instance, reduced their risk of depression five years later by almost 20 percent. Of course, the relationship between depression and physical activity goes two ways, since depressed people are less likely to exercise.
Why would moving your body benefit your emotional state? There are several possible reasons. Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, may boost levels of neurotransmitters—notably dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin—that influence mood. Psychology also comes into play. Any type of exercise can provide a sense of control and accomplishment. It also can serve as a distraction or time-out from daily anxieties and concerns.
Harnessing the power of exercise
If you are among the millions of people suffering from depression, it’s important to seek medical attention; exercise probably cannot replace therapy or medication, especially for people who are severely depressed. But it may well be recommended as part of your overall treatment plan, and in any case, it has no side effects and can benefit your health in many other ways. Here are some tips to keep in mind, whether you’re living with depression or simply looking to maximize exercise’s mood-boosting benefits:
- Pick an activity that gets you out of the house and into the company of others. Isolation contributes to depression, and it can sap motivation.
- Any exercise appears to help, but it has to suit you and you have to do it regularly—ideally most days of the week. If you don’t like jogging or lifting weights, try walking or swimming. Consider the setting, too; hiking in the woods may be more rewarding than running on a treadmill, for example.
- If you find exercise boring, try listening to audio books or music during the activity. For variety, alternate moderate exercise with short bursts at higher intensity, also known as interval training.
Also see Is Happiness a Key to Health?