Fighting Depression with Exercise

If you’ve hung around this blog for a while, you know that I am a firm believer that exercise will make just about anything better.

That was certainly the experience I had with cancer, as maintaining my fitness was critical to lifting my spirits. A nice workout was the best way for me to shake off the remaining side effects of a chemo infusion.

Moving makes you feel better.

That’s why I’m not completely surprised that a group of researchers (Heissel et al., 2023, Br J Sports Med) are suggesting, based on a meta-analysis of 41 studies comprised of a total of 2264 participants, that exercise be used as a primary treatment for depression. That means they feel the results of their research demonstrated exercise to be just as effective as psychotherapy and medication.

The study authors conclude boldy, “Exercise is efficacious in treating depression and depressive symptoms and should be offered as an evidence-based treatment option focusing on supervised and group exercise with moderate intensity and aerobic exercise regimes.” [Emphasis mine]

However, while no one is arguing against the importance of exercise in helping individuals treat their depression, an article appearing in The Washington Post cites other researchers who feel that it may be premature to use exercise as a primary treatment for people suffering from clinical depression and suggest that additional studies should be conducted.

More research needs to be done to determine the specifics of how to use exercise to lift depression.

In particular, as a meta-analysis, although the total number of research participants was large (2,264), the individual studies on which the analysis was based tended to have smaller participant sizes, due in no small part to the fact that running studies like this can be costly.

There are still a number of questions that need to be addressed, such as exercise type, frequency, intensity and amount. Depression is different for everyone both in scope and origin, and an “exercise prescription” should be personalized for the individual. Still, no one is disupting that any form or length of exercise is far better than doing nothing.

In light of these results, what should you do?

Do the type of exercise you enjoy. The best results in this particular meta-analysis were obtained from moderate intensity exercise, although intense exercise was still beneficial, and benefits were also gained from even light exercise. Avoiding sedentary behavior was key.

If you’re just starting out, find a simple exercise that you’ll enjoy doing and will look forward to.

My personal suggestion for anyone who is not currently exercising would be to try to maintain consistency with a simple exercise like brisk walking. If you are able to get outside into nature, perfect! If you’re deadset on bingewatching the latest season of your favorite show and decide to march in place, swinging your arms while you watch, that is great too! It still beats the pants off of crashing out on the couch as the show plays on.

There are many ways to incorporate more movement into your life and also ways to make it pleasant so that you look forward to it. At the least, find a simple exercise that you don’t dread…and then keep doing it. In the meantime, we will await future studies that can offer more insights into the psychological benefits of exercise.


The Study, a Meta-analysis
Heissel A, et al. (2023) Exercise as medicine for depressive symptoms? A systematic review and meta-analysis with meta-regression. Br J Sports Med.

A Reader-friendly Synopsis
Reynolds G (March 15, 2023) The best treatment for depression? It could be exercise. The Washington Post.