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Exercising For Depression

Exercise as medicine was prescribed as early as 600 BC by Susrata, an Indian physician¹. Susrata believed that moderate exercise was crucial for healthy digestion, skin complexion, aging, and physical development¹. Since then, the scientific method has proven many of the ancient physician's presuppositions and continues to reveal the healthful benefits of physical activity². This week, we will explore the benefits of physical activity on depression.

It is a well established finding that individuals that are less fit suffer from greater symptoms of depression³⁻⁵ More specifically, exercise reduces the severity of depression while also preventing its onset⁶⁻⁷. In one study, researchers found that there were no differences in depressive symptoms between an exercise group that was prescribed 3 weekly aerobic workouts and an antidepressant (sertraline) group 4 months following the intervention⁷. After 10 months, decreased depressive symptoms and relapse rates were observed among the exercise group⁸.

There are numerous mechanisms that potentially mediate the beneficial effects of exercise on depression. Participation in a regular exercise routine may be met with positive feedback from broader society and establish a sense of normalcy in depressed individuals². Moreover, exercising at high intensities makes it very difficult to ruminate on one's personal issues². Physical activity may combat fatigue which is characteristic among depressed individuals². Furthermore, increased perspiration and heart rate during physical activity teaches depressed individuals that such sensations are normal². Finally, exercise may increase hippocampal (the stress regulation center of the brain) volume which has been demonstrated to be shrunken among individuals suffering from depression⁹⁻¹⁰.

There are no conclusive exercise prescriptions for testing depression². Therefore, it is advised that readers follow the public health guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week².


  1. Bhishagratna, K. K (1996). Sushruta Samhita: Volume 1. Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.

  2. Pedersen, B. K., & Saltin, B. (2015). Exercise as medicine - evidence for prescribing exercise as therapy in 26 different chronic diseases. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science In Sports, 25 Suppl 3, 1–72.

  3. Thirlaway, K., & Benton, D. (1992). Participation in physical activity and cardiovascular fitness have different effects on mental health and mood. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 36(7), 657–665.

  4. Galper, D. I., Trivedi, M. H., Barlow, C. E., Dunn, A. L., & Kampert, J. B. (2006). Inverse association between physical inactivity and mental health in men and women. Medicine and Science In Sports and Exercise, 38(1), 173–178.

  5. Tolmunen, T., Laukkanen, J. A., Hintikka, J., Kurl, S., Viinamäki, H., Salonen, R., Kauhanen, J., Kaplan, G. A., & Salonen, J. T. (2006). Low maximal oxygen uptake is associated with elevated depressive symptoms in middle-aged men. European Journal of Epidemiology, 21(9), 701–706.

  6. Sui, X., Laditka, J. N., Church, T. S., Hardin, J. W., Chase, N., Davis, K., & Blair, S. N. (2009). Prospective study of cardiorespiratory fitness and depressive symptoms in women and men. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 43(5), 546–552.

  7. Blumenthal, J. A., Babyak, M. A., Moore, K. A., Craighead, W. E., Herman, S., Khatri, P., Waugh, R., Napolitano, M. A., Forman, L. M., Appelbaum, M., Doraiswamy, P. M., & Krishnan, K. R. (1999). Effects of exercise training on older patients with major depression. Archives of Internal Medicine, 159(19), 2349–2356.

  8. Babyak, M., Blumenthal, J. A., Herman, S., Khatri, P., Doraiswamy, M., Moore, K., Craighead, W. E., Baldewicz, T. T., & Krishnan, K. R. (2000). Exercise treatment for major depression: maintenance of therapeutic benefit at 10 months. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62(5), 633–638.

  9. Campbell, S., Marriott, M., Nahmias, C., & MacQueen, G. M. (2004). Lower hippocampal volume in patients suffering from depression: a meta-analysis. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 161(4), 598–607.

  10. Pajonk, F. G., Wobrock, T., Gruber, O., Scherk, H., Berner, D., Kaizl, I., Kierer, A., Müller, S., Oest, M., Meyer, T., Backens, M., Schneider-Axmann, T., Thornton, A. E., Honer, W. G., & Falkai, P. (2010). Hippocampal plasticity in response to exercise in schizophrenia. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67(2), 133–143.

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