Why you should exercise to combat depression


Kevin Mangelschots

Working out is critical for our mental and physical health, particularly if our hormones are out of whack due to depression or any other illness.

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

Benefits of exercising while depressed

Picture of men and women in a gym class exercising.

Depression is a mood disorder, characterized by the neurotransmitter dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine being out of balance. Yet, we know that exercise can be used as a treatment option.

These neurotransmitters are important hormones because they aid in regulating our temperament.

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

    Illustration of a brain with arms and legs lifting weights while smiling, indicating that working out makes the brain feel, and work better.

    Conveniently, 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.

    Our mood will improve and the symptoms associated with depression will be reduced or eliminated as a result of this improved regulation of our hormones.

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

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

    Important to note is that there’s not one single best exercise for depression. Working out is one of the cures, but always a critical part of rehabilitation.

  • 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 individuals 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, at home, or in their social life.

  • Exercising helps us fall asleep and sleep better

    Perhaps one of the most underrated benefits of exercising is that it helps depressed people fall asleep quicker so that they can get some much-needed uninterrupted sleep.

    It is suggested by studies that physical movements increase our body temperature, which means that the drop in temperature after working out 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 bodies 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 conversations with those around you too.

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

  • Reduces stress

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

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

Why do people often feel too depressed to exercise?

A depressed young woman sitting on a bench all alone.

People suffering from depression often feel too tired and down to exercise. It’s no wonder why they regularly feel that way if we 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 training despite not wanting to. Especially when the motivation’s not all there.

  • Sleep deprivation

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

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is depression?

Illustration of a man sitting on a chair with various negative thoughts written around him.

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

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

When depressed, these neurotransmitters that help to regulate our mental state are unbalanced. This will lead to a host 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 between depression and sadness is that sadness often comes as part of a natural, individual grieving process, while depression is not a naturally 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, but also practicing hobbies such as gardening are all great for treating depression.

Ideally, a combination of endurance and resistance training is best for our general well-being.

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

Does depression make exercising harder?

Depression does make exercising 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 usually more depressed since physical activity and exercise are such essential parts of our health.

Researchers have suggested that physical inactivity, along with sleeping issues and a lack of energy can potentially lead to depression and other mood changes.

Is exercise better than antidepressants to treat depression?

An analysis of several meta-studies concludes that exercise is more advantageous to treating mental conditions such as depression and anxiety than medications and psychotherapy.

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?

Research has found that exercising for just 30 minutes each day can be as efficient as an antidepressant.

That’s because moving around releases endorphins that make us feel better, thus improving our mood.

Does exercise increase serotonin?

Motor activity increases the release and synthesis of serotonin.

This means that exercise does help to 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 create and maintain healthy routines to reach those dreams.

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.