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Depression: Can sports and exercise help?

Last Update: June 18, 2020; Next update: 2023.

Sports and exercise can probably help to somewhat reduce the symptoms of depression. It's not clear whether particular forms of exercise are more suitable than others.

Depression can have any of a number of symptoms. The most common signs include feeling down for a long time, listlessness, not enjoying things, and generally not being interested in anything – even in hobbies and activities you used to enjoy. Various treatment options and support services are available for people who have depression. Psychotherapy and medication (antidepressants) form the foundation of the treatment of depression.

People who have depression often don't feel like doing anything, and end up not getting much physical exercise. Exercise and sports – like Nordic walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or hiking – are commonly recommended to relieve or prevent depression. Many people who manage to do sports in addition to having other treatments – despite having depression – say that it feels good to be able to do something to fight their depression themselves. Sports give them the opportunity to be active and to meet other people. It is also thought that doing sports has a positive effect on the brain’s metabolism, and therefore on the depression itself too.

Research on sports and exercise for depression

Many studies have looked into the benefits of sports and exercise in depression. They compared the effectiveness of sports and exercise programs with that of other approaches to the treatment of depression. Many of these studies looked at the effects of jogging and Nordic walking, while others tested cycling, doing exercises and strength training. Most of these sports programs ran for 1 to 16 weeks.

Symptoms improved somewhat

The researchers mainly wanted to find out whether participating in sports and exercise programs can relieve the symptoms of depression. Their results showed that sports and exercise have an effect, even though it tends to be small. In other words: People who participated in exercise programs had, on average, somewhat fewer symptoms than people who didn't participate and who also didn't receive any other form of treatment. So the programs didn’t provide major relief from the symptoms. What’s more, many participants dropped out of the programs early. This could be seen as a sign that the type of suggested exercise – usually jogging or Nordic walking – may not have been right for everyone.

There were hardly any studies comparing the different exercise programs with one another. For this reason it isn’t possible to say whether the type, intensity, or frequency of physical exercise make a difference.

Sports and exercise typically can't replace psychotherapy or antidepressants for the treatment of moderate to severe depression, but they can be a useful addition. In mild depression, they are a good alternative for people who don't want to start a treatment right away.

Some questions remain unanswered

The review of these studies leaves many questions unanswered: Is the influence of sports and exercise the same in mild, moderate and severe depression – or are there differences? Are sports and exercise more effective when done in groups or individually? How long does the effect last? Might it also sometimes be a bad idea to encourage someone to get more exercise? After all, people with severe depression find it almost impossible to be physically active. This is easier for someone who has mild depression.

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Bookshelf ID: NBK559350