Depression and Working Out

Depressed man in black and white


Depression and working out may not seem all that complimentary, but can some forms of mild depression be managed through exercise?  

What is Depression?

The Mental Health Foundation describes depression as being a ‘common mental health problem’ during which people might feel ‘low mood, a loss of interest or pleasure in things, low-energy and low-self worth’.  It goes on to say that depression often encompasses feelings of hopelessness and sadness.

Depression will affect around 1 in 10 people in the UK in their lifetime.  The NHS says that there’s no one single cause of depression but that it can affect anyone: young or old, men and women.

Harvard Health points out that many people assume depression is due to a ‘chemical imbalance’ but research doesn’t support this.  UK mental health charity MIND says that it’s unclear whether changes to brain chemistry is ‘a result of depression or the cause of it’.

80% of people taking a survey on depression believed that the illness was caused by a chemical imbalance, but the truth is far more complex and it’s likely that the cause of depression is due to multiple factors.

Certain life events or situations can bring on depression: bereavement or financial worries, for instance. It can also be a combination of stressful events happening one after another. For example, the loss of a job might lead to financial pressures, this might lead to illness and perhaps then there’s a bereavement in the family. Depression can leave a person mentally and physically isolated from the world around them including away from traditional support networks like social groups, friends and family.

If depression runs in your family, then it can sometimes increase your chances of suffering from it. Alcohol and drugs can cause it. Illness and certain medications can, too. With such a wide scope of potential triggers, it’s easy to see why depression currently affects up to 1 in 4 people in the UK.

Depressed woman sitting against blue wall


What are the Treatments for Depression?

Cognitive behavioural therapy is a popular way to help treat depression.  It’s known as a ‘talking therapy’ and helps people change the way they think and behave.

Counselling and other conversational therapies are also widely employed.

Medication can be an effective way of combating depression, too.

Will Working Out Help Reduce Depression?

It’s a difficult question because yes, for some people, particularly those with mild to moderate forms of depression, exercise can help to reduce the symptoms.  

Dr Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told the Harvard Health website that

"For some people, it works as well as antidepressants’’

He goes on to explain that during high-intensity exercise, the body releases endorphins.  Endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce the feeling of pain and make us feel good.  They’ve been likened to morphine. If you’re not able to participate in any high-intensity exercises, then there’s another way to get a brain boost to reduce depression.  Even during a gentler regimen of exercise, the body will release proteins that help new nerve cells to grow and it’s these new cells that can help make you feel better.

Scott Douglas writing for SLATE writes that exercise actually changes the brain. The effect of working out on our brains, therefore, isn’t transitory or temporary.  Douglas says it’s neuroplasticity and that doctors in the US should be recommending exercise as a first option in cases of mild depression.

Australia’s Black Dog Institute suggests that 16- weeks of exercise could be as effective in treating mild forms of depression as anti-depressants. One study has also suggested that exercising could help prevent illness in the first place, too.  People exercising for 150 minutes each week appear to be 31% less likely to develop symptoms.

What Exercises Will Help Those Suffering From Depression?

The best exercise is often the one that you’ll enjoy doing.  When we take pleasure in something it makes it easier to keep doing it and consistency is important in exercise.  If you absolutely hate running, then maybe running isn’t for you.  Find something else. Exercise encompasses so many activities from Zumba to Nordic walking, weight training to rambling to skittles, football to ballroom dancing and everything in between.  Even walking to school, to the shops, to the park or around the block is exercise.

Aerobic exercise is thought to be as effective as anti-depressants for some people. Many of us who enjoy running will have experienced the ‘runners high’, where the release of endorphins makes us feel good.  One study entitled  The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed concluded that initially, it’s not so much the type, intensity or duration of exercise that matters so much, but the frequency of it.  


Woman running in cold weather gear against grey sky

Simply put, there’s 
no ‘best exercise’ for the treatment of mild to moderate depression, there’s only exercise that’s done with some regularity. Even taking a 15-minute walk each day can improve symptoms.  If you can’t manage 15, then do 10-minutes... do 5.

One workout that offers an additional benefit is yoga. Yoga can not only boost strength, fitness and posture but it also teaches breathing techniques and meditative poses that can help to focus the mind and relieve anxiety.  Yoga can be done in the home but public yoga classes are also a great way to meet people and can be helpful for anyone with depression rooted in loneliness or isolation.

The problem is that exercise can’t help everyone.  Those suffering from severe depression won’t benefit from going for a brisk walk.  People living with chronic depression and other associated mental health disorders may very well need medication and other therapies first.  

People suffering from depression often find it hard to exercise. If you’re struggling to get out of bed and take a shower, then the last thing on your mind is going for a run.  The effect of which depression can strip you of motivation, self-worth and sap energy cannot be overstated. Living with depression is hard.  There’s an interesting piece on the Tonic website about the problems of prescribing exercise.

EarHugz is proud to support the Mental Health Foundation.  For every pair of EarHugz or EarSnugz sold, £1 is donated to the charity to help support better mental health for everyone.

If you'd like more information about depression, use the links below.


Mental Health Foundation


In the US

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Half of Us


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