Exercise Helps Prevent Depression

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 14, 2023
Exercise Helps Prevent Depression

Scientists have found more proof that exercise helps prevent depression even in people with a genetic vulnerability. Here’s what you should know.

When life is tough, it’s easy to withdraw. Instead of getting out on a bike or going to a dance class, you might rather be home sleeping or eating ice cream. Maybe you’re going through a busy spell at your job, and you feel you don’t have the time or energy for much else.

But that’s exactly when you need a workout. Physical exercise is your best defense against becoming depressed in a variety of situations, according to an overview of 23 published studies. People usually notice they feel better within a few minutes to a half hour after a moderate workout. The effects linger to make you happier overall.

For example, one study looked at women with ovarian cancer. If they did moderate-to-vigorous exercise 150 minutes a week, they were significantly happier.


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Exercise can also predict happiness levels in children and teens with cerebral palsy.

Other research has focused on people with genes that make them highly prone to depression. A team from Massachusetts General Hospital evaluated electronic data from nearly 8,000 participants in the Partners Healthcare Biobank, calculating a genetic risk score for each person.

Not surprisingly, people with a higher risk score were more likely to get a depression diagnosis over the next two years. But exercise can lower your depression risk — even if you have the very highest genetic vulnerability. It can also improve your mood and energy.

The takeaway: If you’ve been depressed before or depression runs in your family, you need to exercise an extra half an hour more each day to stay clear-headed, compared to someone without your history. Both high-intensity and lower-intensity workouts like yoga contribute.

Other researchers found that exercise did about as much good for depressed people as antidepressants. It also helped protect them from a relapse. In a follow-up study, people who kept exercising regularly were less likely to be depressed than those who didn’t. Other research found that combining exercise with medication and cognitive behavioral therapy has the best results.

Exercise will be good for your body overall. Your doctor is likely to urge exercise if you need to lose weight, lower cholesterol, or prevent diabetes. If you take up the challenge, it may be months before you see any physical changes.

Mood benefits, however, could come quickly. Even 10 minutes a week can boost your happiness if you aren’t active, some research suggests.

There’s a big range in how much exercise you need, and it really depends on you. A study that followed nearly 8,000 adults concluded that you need to exercise from 150 to 450 minutes a week (2.5 to 7.5 hours) for optimal mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity cardio exercise for all adults, plus two days of strength training exercise. Older adults need balance training as well.

If you can’t exercise that much because of a chronic condition, learn how much you can do safely. If you aren’t fit, start slowly, and work towards more. You may benefit from seeing a trainer who can help you safely push yourself.

Know yourself. Any exercise you enjoy can be the center of your routine. Take a class with a friend to stay on track. Seeing people you enjoy can get you in the mood. Once you’ve started moving, chances are you’ll feel better.


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July 14, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell