Depression and exercise: why you should exercise for depression


Kevin Mangelschots

Working out is critical for our mental and physical health, particularly if your hormones are out of wack due to depression.

This is why you should exercise for depression, as it is one of the best natural ways to stave off this debilitating mental disorder.

Benefits of exercising

Image of a woman running on the beach with a sad face to her left, and a happy face to her right.

Depression is a mood disorder, characterized with the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine being out of balance. Yet, we know that exercising can be used to treat depression.

These neurotransmitters are important hormones because they regulate our mood.

It’s most fortunate that there are multiple benefits of exercise regarding depression. Exercise can even be as effective as antidepressants in some cases.

  • Exercise helps regulate our hormones

    It’s most convenient that a side effect of exercising is stimulating and raising our dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine levels.

    This will in turn lead to our mood being regulated better due to our hormones being more balanced in their natural state.

    As a result of the improved regulation of our hormones, our mood will improve and the symptoms associated with depression will be reduced or eliminated entirely.

    It’s been shown that the hippocampus, which is located in the brain and helps to regulate our mood, is smaller in depressed people.

    Physical exercising, whether it’s resistance training like weight lifting, or cardiovascular workouts such as walking, running, or cycling, help to improve our mood by releasing the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.

    Important to note is that there’s not one single best exercise for depression. Working out in itself is one of the cures.

  • Exercising creates new nerve cells and neural connections in the brain

    Illustration of a brain that's lifting weights.

    Training creates new nerve cells in the brain, effectively making new connections. That’s why people typically feel better after working out, and it’s especially true for depressed people to get a better mental and physical state.

    Being in better general health allows them to participate in the world again. Be it at work, home or in their social life.

  • Exercising helps us fall asleep and to sleep better

    Perhaps one of the most underrated benefits of exercising is that it helps depressed individuals fall asleep quicker, and to get some much-needed uninterrupted sleep.

    It is suggested by studies that exercising increases our body temperature, which means that the drop in temperature after exercising may promote falling asleep.

  • Takes your mind off your troubles

    Exercising helps to decrease anxiety and the symptoms associated with depression. It does so by soothing your mind and putting a halt to procrastinating when it’s time to go to bed.

    Procrastinating is often a huge problem when lying in bed with nothing else to do but sleep or think. At night, when everything is quiet with no distractions around, is regularly when people’s minds start wandering off. And when you’re suffering from depression, typically not to a good place.

  • Gain confidence

    Picture of a person cutting the letter T of the sentence “I can't do it” with a pair of scissors.

    Depression and exercise are also connected in the sense that working out oftentimes improves our self-esteem, which helps decrease anxiety and symptoms of being depressed.

    Getting in shape and transforming our body shows us that we do have some control over our lives, which is something that depressed individuals frequently lack since they feel hopeless, and like nothing they do matters.

  • Healthy coping mechanism

    Training is a healthy coping mechanism. Much better than trying to deal with the situation by using drugs, and drinking alcohol for example.

    Consuming alcohol and drugs, or dwelling on those negative thoughts and feelings for that matter will only make you feel worse in the end.

  • Social interaction

    Group of school friends outdoors lifestyle and after school hang.

    If you’re exercising at a gym, or with a peer, then chances are large you’ll get some social interaction too.

    People are social beings. As such, we need frequent social interaction with others to stay sane and to feel good. Even though depressed folks regularly want to stay at home without talking to others, it’s still good to have some social stimulation.

  • Reduces stress

    Exercising reduce stress by taking your mind off your worries, eliminating procrastination, and by releasing neurotransmitters that make you feel better.

    We know that chronic stress isn’t good, and even damaging to our mental and physical health. Exercise is an example of an acute stressor that’s beneficial for our wellbeing since we can adapt to it. That’s because that stressor is short-lived.


Why do people often feel too depressed to exercise?

Picture showing a woman with depression. On the left what you see and on the right what she feels.

People suffering from depression often feel too tired and down to exercise. It’s no wonder why they regularly feel that way if we take a look at the symptoms.

  • Loss of interest and pleasure in activities

    The loss of interest and pleasure in activities typically leads to not seeing the purpose of exercising anymore. Never mind just existing in some instances.

    “Because what’s the purpose of working out when you’re not having fun when doing so?” Still, discipline is indispensable to train despite not wanting to. Especially when the motivation’s not all there.

  • Sleep deprivation

    Factor in the sleep deprivation which depressed people frequently suffer from because they have trouble falling asleep or getting quality, uninterrupted sleep leaves them feeling sad and low on energy.

What is depression?

Picture of a man sitting down with his hands behind his head.

Depression is a common mental disorder which negatively impacts the way you feel, think, and consequently, act.

Since it is in fact a mood disorder, we can use exercise to cure or at least help treat depression. This study confirms that exercising helps to regulate the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which regulate our mood.

When depressed, these neurotransmitters which help regulate our mental state are unbalanced. This will lead to a list of mental and physical problems, which can in turn lead to problems at home, work or in your social life.

Differences between being depressed and sadness

A lot of the symptoms listed above can also be experienced when we are feeling sad.

For example: We can feel sad, have trouble sleeping, and feel worthless if a loved one dies. Hell, most of us experience those same feelings when our pet dies, which many consider to be part of the family.

I think the key difference of being depressed and sadness is that sadness often comes as part of a natural, individual grieving process, while depression is not a natural occurring phenomenon.

Sadness often differs from depression by the following aspects:

  • When grieving, negative and painful feelings come in waves. Those feelings are typically combined with positive memories of the person/animal we are grieving.
  • Most of our self-esteem is maintained when grieving, while our self-esteem is typically greatly reduced when depressed!

Which exercise is better for depression?

Image of a man grabbing two fixed dumbbells from a weight rack.

Cardiovascular training, lifting weights, and even practicing hobby’s such as gardening are all great to treat depression.

Ideally, a combination of endurance and resistance training is best for our general wellbeing.

All exercises help to combat the symptoms that are associated with depression and anxiety.


Does depression make exercise harder?

Depression does make exercise harder, especially when we’re severely depressed.

That’s because we can experience reduced energy, anxiety, disturbed sleep, changes in our appetite, and even reduced motivation to move around.

Are people who don't exercise more depressed?

Image of a cat sitting on the couch while holding the TV remote control with chips beside him signifying that he's a couch potato.
People who don’t exercise are typically more depressed since physical activity and exercising are such essential parts of our mental and physical health.

Is exercise better than antidepressants to treat depression?

So yes, it is better than antidepressants to treat depression. Still, people who are severely depressed and at risk for self harm should combine exercising, antidepressants, and psychotherapy for the best results!

How much exercise is equivalent to an antidepressant?

That’s because being physically active releases endorphins that makes us feel better, thus improving our mood.



Does exercise increase serotonin?

This means that exercise does help increase serotonin levels.


Image of the word, “conclusions” written on a black backboard with white chalk.

We know that exercise can be used to treat depression. As such, every single individual should work out, particularly when suffering from depression.

I think the most important thing a person who’s diagnosed with depression can do is to set small goals and to create and maintain healthy routines in order to reach those goals.

It’s best to figure out a goal based on your values and norms, as this will be something that matters to you. And this will give you the intrinsic motivation needed to succeed.