How exercise reduces depression

SAMHSA’s National Helpline | SAMHSA

Your browser is not supported

Switch to Chrome, Edge, Firefox or Safari

Main page content

  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

    Also visit the online treatment locator.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service), or TTY: 1-800-487-4889 is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.

Also visit the online treatment locator, or send your zip code via text message: 435748 (HELP4U) to find help near you. Read more about the HELP4U text messaging service.

The service is open 24/7, 365 days a year.

English and Spanish are available if you select the option to speak with a national representative. Currently, the 435748 (HELP4U) text messaging service is only available in English.

In 2020, the Helpline received 833,598 calls. This is a 27 percent increase from 2019, when the Helpline received a total of 656,953 calls for the year.

The referral service is free of charge. If you have no insurance or are underinsured, we will refer you to your state office, which is responsible for state-funded treatment programs. In addition, we can often refer you to facilities that charge on a sliding fee scale or accept Medicare or Medicaid. If you have health insurance, you are encouraged to contact your insurer for a list of participating health care providers and facilities.

The service is confidential. We will not ask you for any personal information. We may ask for your zip code or other pertinent geographic information in order to track calls being routed to other offices or to accurately identify the local resources appropriate to your needs.

No, we do not provide counseling. Trained information specialists answer calls, transfer callers to state services or other appropriate intake centers in their states, and connect them with local assistance and support.

  • Suggested Resources

    What Is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families
    Created for family members of people with alcohol abuse or drug abuse problems. Answers questions about substance abuse, its symptoms, different types of treatment, and recovery. Addresses concerns of children of parents with substance use/abuse problems.

    It's Not Your Fault (NACoA) (PDF | 12 KB)
    Assures teens with parents who abuse alcohol or drugs that, "It's not your fault!" and that they are not alone. Encourages teens to seek emotional support from other adults, school counselors, and youth support groups such as Alateen, and provides a resource list.

    After an Attempt: A Guide for Taking Care of Your Family Member After Treatment in the Emergency Department
    Aids family members in coping with the aftermath of a relative's suicide attempt. Describes the emergency department treatment process, lists questions to ask about follow-up treatment, and describes how to reduce risk and ensure safety at home.

    Family Therapy Can Help: For People in Recovery From Mental Illness or Addiction
    Explores the role of family therapy in recovery from mental illness or substance abuse. Explains how family therapy sessions are run and who conducts them, describes a typical session, and provides information on its effectiveness in recovery.

    For additional resources, please visit the SAMHSA Store.

Last Updated: 08/30/2022

7 Great Exercises to Ease Depression

Exercise may trigger feel-good chemicals in your brain that help alleviate symptoms of depression.

By Wyatt MyersMedically Reviewed by Allison Young, MD


Medically Reviewed

Aerobic exercise appears to help alleviate depressive symptoms, experts say.

Deby Suchaeri/Getty Images

Exercise isn’t a depression cure-all — there’s no such thing. But plenty of research has shown that exercise can reduce or even prevent symptoms of depression.

Among people with depression and similar health conditions, exercise appears to have substantial mental health benefits. For instance, a review published online in August 2019 in the Journal of Neurology found that exercise can significantly improve depressive symptoms and quality of life when used as an add-on therapy to usual treatment — and the more exercise, the better, researchers noted.

Earlier, a large study published in January 2018 in The American Journal of Psychiatry concluded that engaging in physical activity of any intensity for at least one hour each week could prevent 12 percent of future cases of depression.

What makes a fitness routine an excellent addition to your depression treatment plan? There are likely multiple factors. Biologically, exercise can increase certain chemicals in the brain that can help form new brain cells and new connections between brain cells.

In addition to the direct effects exercise has on the brain, other physical changes that occur with exercise, such as cardiovascular fitness and improved metabolic health, promote brain health indirectly.

Psychologically, exercise is a great way to improve self-esteem and self-efficacy, as there are small goals, such as walking or running a certain distance or for a certain amount of time, that you can work toward achieving. And socially, exercise — particularly when done in a class setting or with a friend or partner — can strengthen your relationships with others.

If you need help becoming more active or if you simply want to try new activities, here are seven great exercises that can help ease depression symptoms.


Go for a Run for an All-Natural Mood Boost

Ivan Gener/Stocksy

“The most tangible example of exercise stimulating certain brain chemicals is the runner’s high that many athletes report experiencing once crossing a certain threshold of exertion,” says David Muzina, MD, a psychiatrist based in Cleveland. That sense of euphoria is thought to be due to the release of endorphins in the brain in response to sustained physical activity.

“Endorphins reduce your perception of pain and trigger a positive feeling in the body,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist and the director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in New York City. Exercise also has a host of physical benefits that can make you feel better overall by decreasing muscle tension, improving sleep quality, and reducing anxiety, she notes.

So which workouts fight depression best? “To date, the strongest evidence seems to support aerobic exercise,” says Dr. Muzina. This includes running, swimming, walking, hiking, aerobics classes, dancing, cross-country skiing, and kickboxing.

According to the Mayo Clinic, engaging in at least 30 minutes of exercise on three to five days of the week could significantly lessen depressive symptoms. And if you’re short on time, even a 10- to 15-minute spurt of exercise could make a difference, the Mayo Clinic reports.


Lift Your Mood by Lifting Some Weights


Strength-training exercises also help relieve symptoms of depression, according to an analysis of 21 studies, which was published in August 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Similarly, a review of studies published in June 2018 in JAMA Psychiatry showed that adults who exercise with weights are less likely to develop depression than those who never exercise with weights.

How do barbells and similar equipment brighten one’s mood? For people with mild to moderate depression, weight training can be a somewhat meditative practice, says Dr. Hafeez. “While you are weight training, your mind is focused on the task at hand and not thinking about anything else,” she says.

Not to mention, there are other benefits, such as increased muscle definition, elevated blood flow, and hard work — all of which can improve your outlook and give you a deep sense of satisfaction when you reach your goals, Hafeez says.

Just be sure to start slowly and use the assistance of a personal trainer if needed.


Combine Yoga With Other Treatments to Feel Even Better

Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Practicing yoga is another activity that can ease symptoms of depression, especially when combined with usual treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, according to a study published in May 2019 in American Family Physician.

“Eastern traditions such as yoga have a wonderful antidepressant effect in that they improve flexibility; involve mindfulness, which breaks up repetitive negative thoughts; increase strength; make you aware of your breathing; improve balance; and contain a meditative component,” says Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC.

Dr. Rosenthal suggests starting with a yoga class in your area so you can be sure that you’re doing the movements and poses properly. Group yoga offers social benefits, too, Hafeez adds.

Not enough evidence is available to know which type of yoga is best for treating your depression or how long you need to be doing yoga to see benefits. But a study published in 2018 in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found that women who practiced hatha yoga, which combines yoga poses with breathing techniques, three times a week for four weeks reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, compared with those levels at the start of the study.

Another small study published in 2017 in the International Journal of Yoga found that doing 60 minutes of a similar yoga practice twice a week over the course of 12 weeks decreased levels of depression and anxiety and increased self-esteem among elderly women.


Relieve Stress With Graceful Tai Chi Moves

Valentina Barreto/Stocksy

Like yoga, tai chi is another Eastern tradition that might help ease life with depression. Specifically, this slow, gentle practice may help reduce stress and relieve symptoms of depression, according to a review article published in April 2019 in Frontiers in Psychiatry.

Practicing tai chi in a group setting may also play a role in depression relief. “A group class can reinforce a sense of autonomy and connectedness with others. You can also develop a social support network in an exercise class that you might not form when exercising alone,” says Hafeez.


Walk Regularly to Help Ease the Blues

Liam Grant/Stocksy

Simply putting one foot in front of the other may be the trick to feeling better — that’s because walking is an aerobic exercise that’s suited for almost everyone. All it takes is a pair of comfortable, supportive shoes, and you’re ready to go.

“Practical wisdom suggests that doing something is better than doing nothing in terms of physical activity,” says Muzina. If depression has made you sedentary, start off slowly and gradually increase time and distance, he advises.

Hafeez agrees. “If you set too high of expectations, you may self-blame and feel guilty if you don’t meet those expectations. Set expectations that are realistic, such as going on a five-minute walk,” she explains.


Get a Healthy Dose of Sunlight by Heading Outdoors

Igor Emmerich/Getty Images

If you enjoy being outdoors, even simple activities such as gardening, throwing a ball around with your kids, or washing your car may do your mood some good. One reason may be that sunlight has been shown to facilitate increases in serotonin, a mood-supporting brain chemical. Drops in serotonin during the darker, colder months have been linked to some cases of seasonal affective disorder.

“Choose whatever [outdoor activity] works for you, depending on your functioning level, energy, and preferences,” advises Shoshana Bennett, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Postpartum Depression for Dummies.


Break Out of a Funk by Bouncing

Edwin Tan/Getty Images

Having a hard time finding an exercise you enjoy? One simple strategy is to bounce! Jumping on a mini trampoline, also known as a rebounder, is a fun way to work your cardiovascular system without taxing your joints.

“You don’t need to jump but bend your knees and bounce as quickly as you can for a few minutes,” says Bennett. “This is an easy way to oxygenate your brain and get some endorphins flowing.”

When bouncing on a trampoline, Hafeez explains, your brain will release serotonin as well as oxytocin — another mood-boosting brain chemical.

“The spike in neurochemicals will give the feeling of being happy and help with depression,” Hafeez says. Rebounding exercises also increase blood flow to muscles, loosen overused muscles, help you relax, and promote better sleeping patterns, Hafeez adds.

How to Get Started

For people with depression, starting an exercise routine may not be easy. “It can be more difficult for people with depression to exercise because depression can reduce energy, cause body aches, increase pain perception, and disrupt sleep, resulting in less motivation to exercise,” says Hafeez.

Her recommendation? Start with five minutes a day of walking or any form of movement like yoga or tai chi. As you get into shape, you’ll begin to look forward to these relaxing breaks in your day and enjoy it more and more. “Five minutes of activity will become 10, 10 will become 15, etc.,” Hafeez says.

Additional reporting by Michelle Pugle.

90,000 The effect of exercise on reducing the risk of depression has been confirmed in a sample of more than half a million people. At the same time, depression seems to have no effect on physical activity - Science

There is still no reliable way to treat depression. Antidepressants are not always effective, and besides, they have to be selected by trial and error. Psychotherapy is about as effective as antidepressants, but not everyone can afford it. It is better to find ways to prevent, but the factors that significantly reduce the risk of depression are still difficult to determine. At the same time, there is a lot of scientific and clinical research on this topic, but the problem is that most of them find a correlation, not a cause-and-effect relationship, so it is impossible to say exactly what affects what.

In this study, the researchers decided to find out whether a physically active life affects depression, or depression affects physical activity. They also wondered if the way this physical activity is measured affects the risk of depression. The fact is that many of these studies are based on the reports of people themselves, and they can forget or exaggerate, be mistaken or give socially approved answers instead of describing the real state of affairs.

In this case, the researchers nevertheless decided to establish a causal relationship between the two parameters, physical education and depression, by the method of Mendelian randomization. This is a method based on the natural variability of human genotypes due to single nucleotide polymorphisms - differences in the DNA of the same gene with a size of one nucleotide (“snip”). Different variants of the same gene are associated with different traits in humans. For example, their body reacts differently to diseases, becomes more or less sensitive to certain environmental factors, etc.

Thus, gene variants associated with an object of interest can serve as a kind of proxy tool for assessing the potential causal relationship of its influence on the parameter under study (in this case, the presence of depression in a person). Simply put, if exercise does reduce the risk of depression, then people with gene variants that increase the likelihood of exercising are proportionately less likely to be depressed.

Researchers applied genome-wide association searches (GWAS) to genetic data from the British Biobank, the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium and several other cohorts. GWAS allows you to find the relationship between genomic variants and phenotypic traits. Scientists were interested in two groups of subjects with high physical activity. The first (377,234 people) is based on the report (in metabolic minutes per week), the second (91,084 people) - based on an objective study using an accelerometer that measures the number of steps in the last 72 hours. A sample of people diagnosed with major depressive disorder (143,265 people) was also taken.

For people who described themselves as physically active, nine snips associated with this feature were found. For those whose activity was objectively measured, there were only two snips. There were 44 associated snips for depression.

Mendelian randomization was applied to these data (611,583 people), which showed that exercise does reduce the risk of major depressive disorder, and only when it is recorded by an accelerometer. That is, the more often “snip of physical education” occurs in the genome, the less often “snip of depression” occurs. Therefore, if a person is physically active, the less likely they are to develop depression. But for physical activity based on self-description, no statistical relationship was found. They also found no feedback, that is, evidence that the presence of depression reduces the likelihood of engaging in physical education.

The authors illustrate this with an example: if a person replaces some time of sitting still with 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity or one hour of moderate physical activity (for example, brisk walking), then the risk of depression is reduced by 26%.

Recent scientific research is helping us not only to find treatments for depression, but also to understand its signs and causes. So, recently it turned out that those suffering from depression in a medical sense are more egocentric.

Evgenia Shcherbina

Brain response to reward predicted the effectiveness of sports against depression

Exercise reduces symptoms in major depressive disorder, but only in patients whose reward system responds better to reinforcement. This was found out by American scientists during a randomized study: for eight weeks, its participants either ran on treadmills three times a week, or did stretching. Running was more effective than stretching, but the effectiveness was regulated by the initial value of the RewP evoked potential - it appears on the EEG about 200 milliseconds after the stimulus was presented. Article published in journal Psychological Medicine .

There is still no single effective treatment for depression, even though the number of those who suffer from it has been growing over the years. Most often, medications are used to treat the disorder (antidepressants are mainly drugs from the group of serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or psychotherapy: but neither one nor the other helps absolutely everyone.

The search for alternative therapies is therefore very important, and in recent years researchers have paid close attention to lifestyle habits and how lifestyle changes can be made to relieve symptoms. So, according to meta-analyses, the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of developing depression by a third, and genetic studies show that smoking causes both depression and schizophrenia.

Sports can also be effective against depression: an hour of physical exercise per week significantly reduces the risk of developing the disease. Whether exercise helps relieve symptoms of diagnosed depression is not known for sure. To clarify this issue, scientists led by Christopher Brush (Christopher Brush) from Florida State University decided to conduct a randomized study: it involved 66 patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

Participants were divided into two groups: the first group (35 people) had to exercise on a treadmill or exercise bike for 45 minutes three times a week for eight weeks, and the second group (31 people) had to stretch at the same frequency. At the start of the study, the researchers assessed the participants' depressive symptoms, their general health, and skeletal muscle oxygenation, a measure of physical activity and endurance. Depressive symptoms were also assessed throughout the study to assess their change.

In addition, at the beginning and at the end of the study, the scientists conducted two EEG experiments: on the work of the reward system and cognitive control. In the first, participants were shown two doors on a screen, opening one of which they could either receive a reward or lose money. During the experiment, the participants measured the evoked potential RewP, which is recorded from the frontal electrodes 200–250 milliseconds after the stimulus was presented.

In the second experiment, participants were shown five arrows pointing up or down and were asked to mark, using one of two buttons, as quickly as possible which way the arrow in the middle was pointing. At the same time, the ERN potential was measured - its peak can be registered 80–150 milliseconds after a person has made a mistake.

By the end of the study, participants who exercised actually had a reduction in their depressive symptoms—more significantly (p < 0.

Learn more