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Exercise is an Effective Treatment for Depression

Physical Activity can beat Depression

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First published: 23.Feb.2024


A recent paper (1) by a team led by Noetel, Sanders, Taylor, Gallardo Gómez, van den Hoek (Feb. 14, 2024), reported that certain exercises such as walking, jogging, aerobic and strength training, yoga, dancing, or tai chi are effective ways to treat depression.

This article briefly explains what they found and why it is relevant for those suffering from depression.

In this Article (Index)

smiling young woman doing plank posture during training
Smiling young woman training

What is Depression?

Depressive disorder or depression is a mental health condition by causing a constant feeling of sadness, and a loss of interest in things that once caused joy.

Depression affects the mood, how people feel, their thoughts, and behavior. It also alters sleep and eating patterns and disturbs their thoughts. It is a condition that can seriously interfere in day-to-day activities.

Depression also impacts on overall health and can worsen heart disease, anxiety and cancer.

Roughly 1 in 6 American adults (16%) will experience depression during their lifetime, and almost 7% of U.S. adults suffer from depression each year.

The most common treatments involve combination of medication, complementary medicine, and therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

However some people don't respond to antidepressant drugs and are resistant to treatment and many people have limited access to depression treatment, even in developed countries.

Yes, you can manage depression with physical activity

It is known that exercise can act as a complement to drugs and therapy providing not only mental health, but also physical health benefits. The US, UK, New Zealand and Australian guidelines recommend engaging in physical activity as part of depression treatment therapies. But these guidelines are not specific and have not analyzed the different types of exercises, duration, intensity or dosage.

This study used statistical tools to analyze 218 unique studies described in 246 reports involving and 14,170 participants with the goal of identifying which types of exercise, and at which dosage are more effective in treating depression, and compared them with regular psycotherapy and antidepressants.

The study found that different types of exercise are effective and also that the more


  • Compared to regular treatment, "moderate reductions in depression were found for walking or jogging, yoga, strength training, mixed aerobic exercises, and tai chi or qigong."
  • "The effects of exercise were proportional to the intensity." More intense or vigorous exercising provided better effects.
  • The effects of cycling and strength training were larger for women than for men
  • Walking and jogging was equally effective for men and women.
  • Yoga, tai chi and aerobic exercise combined with psychoterapy were more effective for men than women.
  • Yoga and aerobic exercise plus psycotherapy had larger effects on older subjects than younger ones.
  • Young participants had better outcomes from strenght training compared to older subjects.
  • "Benefits were equally effective for different weekly doses, for people with different comorbidities, or for different baseline levels of depression." Meaning that any exercise is better than none.
  • Taken alone, without additional therapy or treatments, the most effective physical activities were walking or jogging, yoga, strength training, and dancing.

When we dance, we are free. To put it better, our spirit can travel through the universe, while our body follows a rhythm that is not part of the routine. Paulo Coelho (2007)

How Does Physical Activity Improve Depression?

This study couldn't find the mechanisms by which exercising acts upon depression. However, the authors suggest that the benefits of physical activity are a combination of effects involving "social interaction, mindfulness or experiential acceptance, increased self-efficacy, immersion in green spaces, neurobiological mechanisms, and acute positive affect".

Other studies have shown that these factors decrease the symptoms of depression.

No single treatment can cover all of them, only some; for instance yoga or tai chi may act upon mindful self awarenes, and social interaction may come from exercising with a group of people, contact with nature can be achieved by walking or jogging outdoors; and self-efficacy can be the outcome of improved stamina, strength or body weight through exercise. Running or intense training can also impact on positive affect (the feeling of wellbeing, self-esteem, vitality and life satisfaction).

The authors believe that understanding these mechanisms can help personalize treatments and make them even more effective; and they conclude that "exercise could be considered alongside psychotherapy and antidepressants as core treatments for depression."

Take-home point

Keep active, increase your physical activity, do it intensly. It will improve your physical and mental health.

References and Further Reading

(1) Noetel M, Sanders T, Gallardo-Gomez D, Taylor P, del Pozo Cruz B, van den Hoek D et al. (2024). Effect of exercise for depression: systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ 2024; 384 :e075847 doi:10.1136/bmj-2023-075847

About this Article

Exercise is effective against depression, A. Whittall

©2024, 23 Feb. 2024. Update scheduled for 23 Feb. 2028.

Tags: depression, exercise, outdoors, wellness

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