- New research finds that exercising 150 minutes a week can help lower your risk of depression.
- Data suggests your risk can be lowered by as much as 25%.
- Experts say even doing a little exercise can boost your mental health.
For years, mental health experts have recommended exercise as a way to boost your mood. But new research suggests that regular exercise may actually prevent depression.
That’s the main takeaway from a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry. For the study, researchers analyzed data from 15 studies of 191,130 adults who were followed for at least three years. The researchers tracked rates of depression and physical activity levels in study participants, specifically comparing those who did the recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise with those who didn’t meet the requirements.
According to the results, people who got at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise—which includes things like biking, swimming, and brisk walking—had a 25% lower risk of depression compared to those who were inactive. Even doing half the recommended weekly amount had an effect: Those participants had their risk of depression lowered by 18%.
The findings “suggests significant mental health benefits from being physically active, even at levels below the public health recommendations,” the researchers wrote in the conclusion. “Health practitioners should therefore encourage any increase in physical activity to improve mental health,” they added.
How exercise can help prevent depression
The study didn’t specifically analyse why exercise may help prevent depression, but experts have some thoughts.
Depression is usually treated with a combination of talk therapy and antidepressants, but exercise has also been recommended as a lifestyle therapy, points out Paul Coleman, psychologist and author of Finding Peace When Your Heart is in Pieces.
“Exercise creates endorphins which are feel-good chemicals in the brain,” he says. “Also, folks with depression begin to feel that nothing they do will help, so they become less active. Exercise is our way of telling ourselves ‘I can make a difference,’ which helps increase optimism.”
But exercise does more than impact endorphins. “Exercise can also effect serotonin, a mood neurotransmitter, and dopamine, a reward and motivation neurotransmitter,” says Dr Gail Saltz, professor of psychiatry and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio. Exercise also “increases body blood flow,” and increases the amount of oxygen to the brain, which supports the ability of the brain to grow and change, Dr Saltz says.
Dr Keith R. Stowell, says that there are “behavioral reasons” that can explain this, too. “Engaging in some sort of activity can help you feel more productive and can give you something structured,” he says. “That leads to feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment—all those things play a role.”
Exercise can also “create opportunities for social connections, whether you are joining a gym, partaking in a group fitness class, or discussing your workout routine with like-minded individuals,” says Hillary Ammon. People can also use exercise as a coping strategy for stress, she adds.
This isn’t the only study to link a lowered risk of depression with regular exercise, points out licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. He cites a Harvard study from 2019 that found people who exercised at least three hours a week had a 17% lower risk of developing depression than those who were sedentary.
“Our bodies have evolved over thousands of years to be active, to move, and not be sedentary,” he says. “We were built for action. Thus, we have what is termed an allostatic balance or load to the body and movement—exercise—helps maintain that balance. With the direct connection between mind and body, the balance of the body balances the mind and moods.”
“We’ve had data for a long time that found that, with mild and moderate depression, exercise can be as effective as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor [a common medication used to treat depression],” psychologist Thea Gallagher, co-host of the Mind in View podcast. “There’s something really powerful about exercise’s impact on the brain.”
Any movement “can have a big impact on your mood,” says David Klow, author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters from Your Therapist. “Even the side to side alternating pattern of walking or running can help us feel more regulated,” he says. “Inertia, or staying in one place, might also contribute to a feeling of being stagnant or stuck.”
Coleman says that “any activity will do” to help lower your risk of developing depression, adding that, “it doesn't have to be heart-pumping, but something that gets the blood flowing.”
Who can benefit from exercise to prevent depression?
Everyone can reap the benefits of exercise to lower the risk of depression, Coleman says. “Everyone benefits because most people will report they have daily stress,” he says.
If you have physical limitations or have a health condition that can make regular exercise tricky, Dr Stowell recommends checking in with your doctor first. But, overall, he says, “this can really help people across all age spectrums.”
Dr Saltz recommends doing what you can when it comes to exercise. “As this study showed, even 10 to 15 minutes per day of brisk walking was helpful for mood,” she says. “Most people can fit that in. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good—some walking is better than none, so doing nothing because you can’t run or work out for an hour is not the answer.”
Gallagher stresses that people shouldn’t view exercise as the only way of preventing or treating depression, though. “I always tell people that eating regularly, sleeping the recommended amount of hours, and exercising—these all set the groundwork for good mental health,” she says. “But it might take a lot of things to help manage your mental health and that’s OK.”
What is depression, exactly?
Depression, aka major depressive disorder, is a mental health condition that causes persistent negative thoughts and feelings. People with depression may have the following symptoms:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of irritability, frustration‚ or restlessness
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities
- Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Changes in appetite or unplanned weight changes
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical reasons that don’t get better with treatment
- Suicide attempts or thoughts of death or suicide
When to see a doctor for depression
If you feel like you want to hurt yourself or have suicidal thoughts, Dr Stowell says that’s an emergency situation and you should seek care ASAP.
People need to have five symptoms of depression every day, nearly all day, for at least two weeks to be diagnosed with depression, according to Health Direct. If you think you have depression, talk to your doctor provider. They can diagnose and treat depression or they may refer you to a mental health professional, like a psychologist or psychiatrist.
“If you’re feeling depressed and it’s impacting your functioning, you want to see professional,” Dr Stowell says. “We all have days where we might be sad, but it’s an issue when it’s a pervasive pattern that doesn’t seem to improve over time.”
And, if you're not sure if you might be struggling with depression, it's a good idea to speak up anyway, Dr Ammon says. "If you’re noticing a shift in your mood or have concerns, it can be beneficial to discuss them with your doctor proactively," she says. "There is no wrong time to discuss these concerns with your medical provider."