Impact of Exercise on Depression

This Page Covers:

Key Points
Impact of Exercise on Depression
How does exercise help depression?
What kind of exercise is best?
Where to Get More Information

Key Points

  • Regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health.
  • Studies show that exercise can be an effective treatment for people with different levels of depression symptom severity, from mild to severe.
  • Aerobic exercise (activities that increase your breathing or heart rate) at a moderate intensity is the most effective for reducing depression symptoms.
  • Exercise may be more helpful to reduct depression symptoms when combined with therapy and/or medication treatments.
  • Any exercise is better than none. 30 – 45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 3 times a week can help reduce your depression symptoms. You can do this all at once or break it up into shorter 10 or 15 minute sessions.
  • It’s important to choose an activity you enjoy so you stick with it.
  • People are more likely to keep exercising if they join a regular exercise with friend or partner, or exercise with a trainer or coach.
  • If your depression does not improve, see your doctor or another professional. They might recommend adding another approach (e.g., therapy or medication).

Impact of Exercise on Depression

  • Research shows that exercise is related to a more positive mood.
  • Some studies show that an exercise program increases the effect of other treatments for depression.
  • Exercise is more likely to help if you do not exercise already and if you focus on regular cardio exercise in your program.
  • It is important to stay consistent with exercise. Some studies have shown that stopping exercise may increase depressive symptoms.

How does exercise help depression?

More research is needed to show how exercise may help with depression. Exercise may:

  • Help you feel more confident.
  • Take your mind off of worries and negative thoughts.
  • Increase social connection and reduce feelings of loneliness (if you are exercising with someone else or in a group).
  • Increase energy level.
  • Improve sleep.
  • Increase levels of chemicals in your brain that help you feel good.

What kind of exercise is best?

  • Exercise is more than running laps or lifting weights. It includes daily activities like walking the dog, gardening, walking to work or washing the car.
  • Any activity that gets you moving and increases your heart rate and breathing can be helpful.
  • You can start by adding physical activities to your day – go for a walk, rake the leaves, vacuum the house, go for a bike ride.
  • Choosing a type of exercise you are interested in may help you to stay committed and interested in exercise.
  • Monitor your mood as you start a new exercise program, to see the link between the activities you do and your mood.
  • The following levels of exercise intensity and type are effective in reducing depression symptoms:
    • Endurance or aerobic exercise – involves activities that increase your breathing and heart rate e.g., biking, swimming, jogging
    • High intensity interval training – involves a period of intense cardiovascular exercise with short rest periods to keep your heart rate high
    • Moderate continuous training – involves doing an exercise that keeps your heart rate at about 70-75% for 50 minutes
    • Resistance training (45-minute session or longer) – involves any movement that you are pushing against tension that makes the movement more difficult to do
    • Neuromuscular exercises – involves exercise that target your sensorimotor control (includes the nervous system and its movements) and stability in your joints
    • Pilates – low-impact exercise that focuses on improving your posture and flexibility as well as muscle strength
    • Yoga – psychical, mental and spiritual practice focused on posture, flexibility, breathing and mindfulness
  • Check out these links for activity guidelines and tips:
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Where to Get More Information

The following book may be helpful:

Fact sheet on physical activity and mental health:

Tip sheets on how to increase your physical activity:

Find an organized physical activity program, sport or recreation organization in your area:

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines:

For More Information See:


  • Rimer J., Dwan K., Lawlor D.A., Greig C.A., McMurdo M., Morley W., Mead G.E. (2012) Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 7. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub5
  • Hoffman, B. M., Babyak, M. A., Craighead, W. E., Sherwood, A., Doraiswamy, P. M., Coons, M. J., & Blumenthal, J. A. (2011). Exercise and pharmacotherapy in patients with major depression: One-year follow-up of the SMILE study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 73(2), 127-133. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e31820433a5

Updated References:

  • Korman, N., Armour, M., Chapman, J., Rosenbaum, S., Kisely, S., Suetani, S., Firth, J., & Siskind, D. (2020). High Intensity Interval training (HIIT) for people with severe mental illness: A systematic review & meta-analysis of intervention studies- considering diverse approaches for mental and physical recovery. Psychiatry research284, 112601. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2019.112601
  • Morres, I. D., Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Stathi, A., Comoutos, N., Arpin-Cribbie, C., Krommidas, C., & Theodorakis, Y. (2019). Aerobic exercise for adult patients with major depressive disorder in mental health services: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Depression and anxiety36(1), 39–53. doi:10.1002/da.22842
  • Schuch, F. B., Vancampfort, D., Richards, J., Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P. B., & Stubbs, B. (2016). Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Journal of psychiatric research77, 42–51. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2016.02.023
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Download: Fact Sheet: Exercise to Treat Depression

Last Updated: June 5, 2020