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  • A new study finds that exercise may help relieve some symptoms of depression.
  • Researchers found people had improved symptoms after a 30-minute workout.
  • Experts say the increased blood flow and oxygenation from exercise can affect neurotransmitters and chemicals that can impact depression.

Exercising for just 30 minutes may significantly reduce symptoms of depression and increase the benefit received from therapy sessions at least temporarily, according to two recent studies from Iowa State University (ISU).

Jacob Meyer, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University and the lead author of both publications, told Healthline that while much is known about how exercise can help people in the general population, less was known about how it could potentially benefit people with depression.

“We conducted these studies to gain a better understanding of the short-term effects of exercise and how we might be able to best capitalize on them for adults with depression,” Meyer told Healthline.

In the study, the research team recruited 30 adults experiencing major depressive episodes.

Participants filled out electronic surveys before, half-way-through and after a 30-minute session of moderate-intensity cycling, and then 25, 50, and 75 minutes afterward.

Those who cycled during the first lab visit came back a week later to repeat the experiment, but sitting for 30 minutes first, with the other group also reversing the order of exercise to rest.

After these sessions, participants completed surveys with standard questions and scales used to measure depression symptoms.

The survey data tracked changes in three characteristics of major depressive disorder, such as depressed mood state, difficulty experiencing pleasure from activities previously enjoyed (anhedonia), and decreased cognitive function.

The findings indicate that during the cycling experiment, participants’ depressed mood state improved over the 30 minutes of exercise and up to 75 minutes afterward.

They looked at how exercise impacted a person’s anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure,

After about 75 minutes, the benefits of exercise in combatting anhedonia started to wear off. But it was still improved over the group that didn’t exercise.

Those who cycled performed better on a test to detect depression in mid-exercise, but the findings were less pronounced 25 and 50 minutes afterward than in the resting group.

Meyer said more research is needed to understand this variation.

“We were unsure how long the short-term effects would last,” he said. “The finding that depressed mood state was improved up through the final 75-minute post-exercise time point – and likely lasts longer, was encouraging.”

Meyer said this suggests the effect of a single exercise session lasts an hour or more, and they found similar benefits for anhedonia, although this may not last as long.

At the end of the eight-week program, both groups showed improvement, but those who exercised before CBT showed a greater reduction in depressive symptoms.

Participants who exercised also reported a quicker, stronger connection with their therapists, suggesting exercise might prime the brain to engage more with emotionally challenging work such as may occur during CBT.

Although in more extreme cases, Dimitriu said stronger measures might be needed to treat this condition.

“Therapy has been shown to be as effective as medication for depression – however it can take longer, unlike two pills of Prozac,” he cautioned.

Dimitriu said medications might be more beneficial and faster acting than therapy for people with more severe symptoms or significant family histories of psychiatric conditions.

The findings suggest a window of time after exercise when someone with depression could better perform psychologically or cognitively demanding tasks, like a test or going to therapy.

To find out whether this effect can work with the long-term benefits of therapy to deliver greater benefits, Meyer and the team conducted a separate pilot study.

It involved ten participants, half of which exercised independently (cycling, jogging, walking) for a half-hour at moderate intensity before signing into an hour of virtual cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) each week.

The other five participants maintained their regular activities during the week before therapy.

“The biggest takeaway is that while we know exercise is useful for many cardiovascular and physical health benefits,” said Meyer. “It also has potent psychological benefits from even just one session.”

He also said exercising just once might change “the way the subsequent hours unfold” by reducing the severity of major symptoms of depression.

“Figuring out how to map bouts of exercise, even short ones of lighter intensity, into people’s days could have an important influence on their well-being and day-to-day activities,” concluded Meyer.

“Exercise is known to be of benefit to depression,” said Dr. Alex Dimitriu, double board certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine and BrainfoodMD. “In my practice, for anyone with either depression or anxiety, I recommend SEMM – optimizing Sleep, Exercise, Mediterranean Diet, and Meditation – daily.”

He noted that exercise could benefit cognition and depression by boosting blood flow to the brain and increasing the growth of new neurons, which might help “rewire,” a brain stuck in a depression.

Patricia Haynes, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, said that increased blood flow and oxygenation due to exercise can affect neurotransmitters and “other chemicals that regulate alertness, anxiety, reward, and pain.”

She added that exercise also improves self-esteem and body image, increases access to the outdoors, and creates social opportunities.

“All of these things can also increase our mood,” Hanes said.

She said it could be difficult to start a new exercise regimen when depressed. Exercise may feel uncomfortable initially, or you may view exercise negatively and avoid future workouts.

“An alternative is to give yourself credit for the very large step of engaging in exercise at all,” Haynes advised. “Trying new and difficult activities are especially difficult when your mood is low.”

Recent research finds even 30 minutes of exercise can provide significant short-term relief from symptoms of depression and even improve how we respond to therapy.

Experts say this might be the result of increased oxygen and changes to brain chemistry caused by exercise.

They also say including even short bouts of exercise during the day can strongly influence our sense of well-being.