More Proof Exercise Helps Prevent Depression

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
January 29, 2020

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 salsa class, you might rather be home sleeping or eating ice cream. Maybe your 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 your 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 also predicted happiness levels in children and teens with cerebral palsy.

Other research 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 had 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.

The Mass General team hopes to use the databank to study other ways to prevent depression.

Another team 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 a year later, people who had kept on exercising regularly were less likely to be depressed than those who didn’t. Later research found that combining exercise with medication and cognitive behavioral therapy had 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.

And even 10 minutes a week can boost your happiness if you aren’t active, some research suggests.

So how much exercise is ideal? There’s a big range, 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 (that’s 2.5 to 7.5 hours) for optimal mental health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 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 this much because of a chronic condition, learn how much you can do safely. If you aren’t fit, start slowly and work up. You may benefit from working with 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, or take a class and make new friends. Seeing people you enjoy can get you in the mood, and once you’ve started moving, chances are you’ll feel better.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Our Depression section


January 29, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell