happy man laying on the beach feet up towards the sky

Exercise Boosts Mood in Depressed Patients

People are often attracted to exercise for relatively obvious reasons. Exercise keeps you healthy, it keeps your body working at its optimal levels, which reduces your chances of certain illnesses and prolongs your life.

Exercise is also a great tool for anyone trying to lose weight, as well as for anyone who is looking to obtain that much sought-after chiselled physique that has become so popular in our culture today.

But exercise may have even more benefits than those I just listed above – it may give a mood boost to depressed individuals.

Happy woman doing abs while another woman holds her feet down

Now, the relationship between exercise and depression has been studied in different capacities for a long time. 

It has been determined through past studies and research, that exercise can be used to treat depression, and may even be as effective as certain antidepressant medication, but without the side effects.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 15 minutes of running daily, or even one hour of walking daily, can reduce your risks of depression by 26%.

The reasons for this are biological. Exercise promotes neural growth, promotes new brain activity that is associated with feelings of calm and well-being, and reduces inflammation, in addition to releasing endorphins, which are ‘feel-good’ hormones. 

Beyond mere depression, exercise has also been found to be an effective treatment for both anxiety and stress, for similar reasons that exercise is a good way to treat depression.

It boosts both mental and physical energy, relieves tension, and releases endorphins. And in terms of stress, exercise helps relieve muscle tension, which is a common side effect of stress.

Exercise promotes relaxation and additionally helps you sleep better, potentially breaking one of those vicious cycles that results from high levels of stress. 

This information has all been known for a decent length of time. Exercise is good, we get it, what’s the point?

Well, in addition to all that, the University of Texas recently found more good news. Not only can exercise be used as a long term treatment of the more underlying problems, it can also be used, in short spurts, to improve mood.

Instead of implementing regimented exercise routines, which often have a lag-time of several weeks to several months for the effects to set in, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have found that short, single bursts of exercise (a half hour of walking) can be a mood-booster to patients suffering from major depression.

The study looked at 40 participants, and divided them into two even groups. One group was the control group – this is the ‘norm’ that the results of the other group were compared against.

They simply sat and rested for thirty minutes. The other group was the experimental group – they walked on a treadmill for thirty minutes, while the control group was resting.

empty treadmills in a gym

An important note about the participants: all of them had been recently diagnosed with major depressive disorder, and none of them were regular exercisers, and none of them were on antidepressants.

All participants completed surveys before their period of rest/exertion, and at five, thirty, and sixty minute intervals after their period of rest/exertion. 

The control group (the quiet rest group) reported reductions in feelings commonly associated with depression, such as anger and fatigue.

The researchers believe this reduction came from the participants having to get out of the house and interact with other people, which can sometimes be therapeutic in it of itself. But the exertion group (this is the group that walked for a half hour) reported feeling good following their brief period of exercise.

The caveat here is that exercise, in these short spurts, serves to relieve symptoms, not the underlying problem. Which is still a good conclusion for two reasons.

Number one, people with depression often self-medicate; this can involve drug or alcohol use, and obviously, with self-medication, the relief is only temporary and symptomatic. If you self-medicate with exercise, your only side effect is better overall health, in addition to your boost in mood.

And reason number two, although these short spurts of exercise don’t address the underlying issue of depression, these small periods of activity can put you on a path that leads to a regimented, regular exercise schedule, which can address the more underlying, long-term issues.

The biggest issue with using exercise as a way to improve the moods of depressed patients surrounds motivation. It is difficult for a non-depressed person to garner the motivation to start working out.

Which makes it that much harder for someone with depression to get motivated. However, if motivation can be found, so can relief, in addition to all those other great health benefits.

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Article by:

Daniel DeMoss

I’m a personal trainer based in Denver (Matrix Gym) and a true fitness nerd. If I’m not training clients or working out at my home gym, I’m probably skiing, cycling or hiking with my dog Rufus.  

Get in touch: [email protected]