Exercise is so often touted as a “fix-it” for depression, and sure enough, it can be very helpful. As a personal trainer and powerlifter with depression myself, I definitely know that working out regularly can help ease my symptoms. But reality is more complicated than that, according to a new study. The study concluded that exercising more was associated with less recurrence of depression, even among people who were genetically predisposed to it. But while exercising may help depression symptoms, as this and other studies show, that isn't the full story.
The study, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, explored the nuanced relationship between working out and depression. The researchers looked at the genomic and electronic health record data of nearly 8,000 participants. The study found that 35 minutes of daily exercise (about four hours per week) reduced participants’ chances of experiencing bouts of depression by 17% for as long as two years. Even in participants who had a genetic predisposition for depression, exercising was shown to reduce the likelihood of developing a depressive episode, as well.
However, the study deliberately excluded people who had experienced a bout of depression in the past year. For this reason, researchers concluded that while physical activity might indeed provide protection against a flare, depression might also result in decreased physical activity. This probably will make a lot of sense if you’ve ever experienced a bout of strong depressive symptoms and felt like you didn't want to leave your bed for a week. Sure enough, I’m someone who loves the gym, but getting there feels especially impossible on the days that my depression hits hardest.
And this makes sense, given the ways that depressive symptoms include a strong decrease in motivation and ability to move around and exert both physical and emotional energy. According to a 2016 study published in the journal Psychological Medicine, depressed moods and high stress are the biggest barriers to exercise in people with severe mental illnesses. Significantly, the second largest barrier was found to be a lack of social support for exercise, which is good news for people who might just need a little extra support for their goals.
So what’s a person with depression who wants to exercise to do? A 2012 study published in the journal Health Psychology found that treating depression effectively increased participants’ levels of physical activity. This strongly suggests that if you’re experiencing depression and want to get exercising, seeking help from a therapist and support from your social networks can be a huge help.
Sure, exercise can help ease your symptoms. But in order to reap those benefits, you have to get outside and hit the gym or running trails first. Meeting yourself in the middle and going for a walk when you can might be a big help. Because it’s not just vigorous physical activity that can help calm your mind, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry — light exercise, which includes moving around in your apartment or around your block, can also start to help you feel better.
In the midst of all these claims that exercise will help your depression — and therefore that you should be exercising right now to help yourself — it might be comforting to know that you’re not alone in struggling to work out while you’re in the midst of a depressive episode. Finding a balance that works for you and where you’re at right now is valid, because you deserve to get support and energy boosts in whatever ways are most helpful to you.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Choi, K. W., Zheutlin, A. B., Karlson, R. A., Wang, M. J., Dunn, E. C., Stein, M. B., … Smoller, J. W. (2019). Physical activity offsets genetic risk for incident depression assessed via electronic health records in a biobank cohort study. Depression and Anxiety. doi: 10.1002/da.22967
Choi, K.W. (2019) Assessment of bidirectional relationships between physical activity and depression among adults. JAMA Psychiatry, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2720689.
Firth, J. (2016) Motivating factors and barriers towards exercise in severe mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27502153.
Alosco, M.L. (2012) Depression is associated with reduced physical activity in persons with heart failure. Health Psychology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3610332/.
Murri, M.B. (2019) Physical exercise in major depression: Reducing the mortality gap while improving clinical outcomes. Frontiers in Psychiatry, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6335323/.