Exercise is a safe, effective and inexpensive treatment for Depression

Updated: August 27, 2023

Exercise is a safe, effective and inexpensive treatment for Depression

My friend Dr. Gerry Craigen is a Psychiatrist in Toronto. When people consult him about depression treatment, he often encourages them to exercise. He is right to do so. A 2023 review of 41 research studies concluded: “Exercise is efficacious in treating depression and depressive symptoms, and should be offered as an evidence-based treatment option.”

Here are 2 videos that give you the basic facts and recommendations:

The rest of this post explains why exercise is a great option for boosting your mood and I share some tips that can help you to get started.

Exercise can be as effective a treatment for depression as medication or counselling.  Even a little bit of exercise can help to improve your mood.  And, moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise is a very potent treatment for depression.  Regular vigorous exercise also helps prevent the development of depression and helps to prevent a relapse if you have already had an episode of depression.

  • How much exercise is enough?  Even a little bit of exercise can be helpful and regular vigorous exercise is a potent treatment for depression.  Here are some guidelines for you.
  • 15 minutes a day, five times a week, of light aerobic exercise, such as fast walking, will boost your mood.
  • If you work at a desk, get up every hour and walk briskly for five minutes.  You could step out to a hallway or go up and down stairs in a stairwell.
  • Aerobic exercise seems best for treating depression but non-aerobic exercise such as stretching, yoga, or strength training can also be somewhat helpful.
  • A “full daily dose” of exercise treatment for depression would be at least 15 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic exercise.  This means that you are sweating, feeling out of breath, and your heart rate is increased.

Check out my post on High-Intensity Interval Training for tips and tools to help you design a good high intensity exercise program.

Here are some tips to help you get started with exercise and help you stay with it.

  • Pick an exercise that is convenient and enjoyable.  It’s okay to start small, say 5 minutes, and build up your endurance over time. Just do it.
  • It is better to exercise in the daytime.  Late evening exercise can keep you awake.
  • Make a list of possible obstacles, such as fatigue, other obligations, or bad weather.  Put the list on your fridge with a solution beside each obstacle.  Maybe you’ll just write: “I choose to exercise anyway!”
  • Exercise with a buddy.  You and your friend can motivate each other and then you are more likely to stick with it.
  • Make exercise a regular part of your social life.  Join a local gym, sports team, or running group.
  • Use an app or calendar to track your exercise and mood.
  • Remember the good news.  Regular aerobic exercise will also improve your sleep, help your concentration, give you more vitality, and help protect you against heart attacks and diabetes.
  • Be mindful in the moment so you can appreciate how good you feel when you finish the exercise session.

Some final advice:  Depression can be successfully treated several different ways.  You could use exercise, psychotherapy, medication, or a combination.  Pick the approach that appeals to you.  That would be the best way to start if you need some help.  I try to take care of my mood by doing mindfulness meditation and vigorous exercise every day.  Something else may be a better combination for you.  Trust yourself.  Start with something. If it works, keep going.  If it is not working, try something else.  You deserve to feel good in your life.