Exercise for Depression and Anxiety

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
August 11, 2017

Work out and boost your fitness, and you’ll improve your mood. Exercise at the gym or track can really be helpful for depression and anxiety. 

When you're depressed or just down, push yourself to get out and move. The more you exercise and the fitter you become, the better you’re likely to feel.

One study in Dallas recruited 126 participants, all adults, who had major depression (without psychosis) and had not found relief with standard antidepressants. But when they were prescribed 12 weeks of exercise, some supervised and some at home, 40 percent of the group enjoyed a significant boost in mood. Some people exercised more than others. In that group, more than 28 percent were considered no longer depressed at the end of the three months.

If you’ve had heart failure, you’re in danger of depression over the next six months. Here again exercise is a cure: improve your fitness by 10 percent or more in that six months, another study noted, and you’re much less likely to get down.  


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The benefits of exercise for depression

A fitter body is more fun to live in. You can be proud of your gains. You’re also likely to be eating more healthily and getting more sleep. Regular exercisers take better care of themselves. On the other hand, when you’ve fallen out of an exercise routine, it’s easy to forget your needs. In the course of a modern day, you may spend hours hunched over a screen, indoors, and miss natural light and sleep. An exercise habit could help you notice sooner when you’re overtired, underfed, or thirsty — you’ve learned to pay attention. You learn to set realistic but ambitious goals and rest up enough to make success possible and sustainable.  

At the same time, you may have more tolerance for unavoidable discomforts. Athletes often say that setting a fitness goal and persisting even when you’re uncomfortable makes you emotionally tougher. When disappointments or stresses come your way, you ideally will be able to tolerate them without seeking comfort in alcohol, cigarettes, or food.

The trick is getting started. When you're down, exercise may feel less like the last thing you want. You’d rather eat a big dinner and watch TV. Here’s where a structure can help: commit to an exercise class or routine with an exercise buddy. The social contact may help — and you'll have a routine. 

Exercise for anxiety

Regular exercise will also help with anxiety, the body’s “fight or flight” impulse in action. When you’re feeling stressed or afraid — sometimes in the face of a real threat — your body wants to run or punch. But in modern life, your fears generally can’t be solved that way. You won’t make life better if you slug your boss. Instead, you might lift weights to remind yourself of your strength. A habit of regular moderate intensity exercise can even help fight panic disorder and agoraphobia, according to one study. 

Are you fighting mild addictions? Exercise can help you stay organized and avoid your pet sins, like alcohol, an Australian team concluded. Researchers queried their participants over four months. Everyone worked out regularly for two months. It turned out that in the next two months, people reported a general increase in what psychologists call self-regulation. They not only felt less stressed — but they had cut back on smoking, alcohol, and coffee. They also said they were eating more healthily and keeping up with chores and commitments.


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April 06, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA