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New research finds that simple exercises like walking, jogging, yoga, and strength training can help ease symptoms of depression. enigma_images/Getty Images
  • A review of 218 scientific trials has found that walking, jogging, yoga, and strength training may be the most effective exercises for relieving symptoms of depression.
  • The more vigorous the exercise, the greater the mental health benefits are likely to be.
  • Experts say this is likely due to the release of feel-good hormones, engagement in a routine, and the social interaction exercise often provides.
  • It can be difficult to exercise when you’re depressed, so experts recommend starting slow and finding something you enjoy.

Have you ever noticed that your mood improves when you exercise?

New research has found that certain kinds of exercise – specifically walking, jogging, yoga, and strength training – seem to be the most effective at easing symptoms of depression.

The research published in The BMJ found that these exercises were effective at reducing depression when used alone or alongside established treatments such as psychotherapy and medication.

Furthermore, the results suggest that, while low intensity exercise is beneficial, the more vigorous the activity, the greater the benefits are likely to be.

To assess the existing data, the study authors reviewed 218 relevant trials involving 14,170 participants that compared exercise as a treatment for depression with established treatments, like antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Moderate reductions in depression were found in walking or jogging, yoga, strength training, mixed aerobic exercises, and tai chi or qi gong.

Moderate effects were also found when exercise was combined with SSRI antidepressants or aerobic exercise was combined with psychotherapy, which suggests that exercise could provide added benefit alongside these established treatments.

While the authors acknowledge that the quality of evidence is low and very few trials monitored participants for one year or more, they say the results suggest that these forms of exercise “could be considered alongside psychotherapy and drugs as core treatments for depression.”

In particular, they note that a combination of social interaction, mindfulness, and immersion in green spaces may help explain the positive effects.

Clinical psychologist Charlotte Russell, who was not involved int the study, isn’t surprised by these findings and says there are likely several mechanisms that explain the effect exercise has on mood.

One of these is the impact of neurochemicals, including dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, which are released when we exercise.

Serotonin stabilizes mood, dopamine contributes to feelings of happiness, and endorphins can provide a natural high.

Additionally, Russell says exercise can provide a sense of meaning and engagement in routine. There is often a social element as well, and all of these factors can positively influence our mental health.

“Building exercise into your routine also breaks the cycle of worsening mood and decreased activity that we commonly see in depression,” Russell adds.

“When we are inactive and not using our body, this can contribute to a sense of sluggishness and low motivation, which can quickly lead to a downward spiral. Regular exercise breaks this and maintains a sense of well-being,” she explains.

You might be wondering why walking, jogging, yoga, and strength training appear to be particularly effective at relieving symptoms of depression.

With walking and jogging, Russell says the benefits may lie in the fact that these exercises are often done outside.

“This typically offers a feeling of connection with nature, and we know that this can be beneficial for us psychologically,” she explains.

Yoga, meanwhile, teaches you to focus on your breathing, something Russell says can lessen feelings of anxiety and create an awareness of our internal state.

“The latter is a skill that can be very beneficial in terms of managing difficult thoughts and feelings,” she notes.

What about the benefits of strength training?

Russell says strength training can help you feel stronger in your body and allow you to complete everyday tasks more easily.

“This has a protective effect on our sense of self and mood,” she notes.

Why does vigorous exercise seem to be best?

Clinical hypnotherapist and wellness coach Geraldine Joaquim, who was not involved in the study, says the more vigorous the exercise, the more you’ll feel those high-achievement hormones, which can have a huge internal effect.

But, she says, taking things at your own pace is more important.

If you live with depression, it isn’t always easy to find your get-up-and-go.

“It takes more effort to move forward when you’re depressed because you’re on an uphill battle to create hormonal activity,” Joaquim explains.

“That’s why it’s important to start where you are and build slowly. That might mean simply putting trainers on and walking to the end of your garden. Doing it again. And again. Then expanding, going to the end of the road, for example.”

By working slowly and being kind to yourself, Joaquim says you are gently promoting the production and release of hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin that make you feel good.

Joaquim advises aiming for around 80% of your capacity rather than going all out and exhausting yourself if you’re not sure how much is too much when you’re exercising.

“Notice what’s happening in your body as you move, enjoy the feelings of stretching muscles, deep breathing, and feeling strong – and remember, nothing is set in stone. You can change what you’re doing at any time,” she notes.

Meanwhile, Russell points out that many gyms and fitness studios offer classes and exercise courses that are suitable for beginners.

“Choosing this option can be reassuring for many as everyone will be in a similar situation,” she says. “However, if an in-person class seems too daunting, start with an online class to build your confidence.”

Exercising when you are depressed can be challenging, and taking the initiative to move can be daunting.

However, research shows, finding ways to move your body is vital for good mental health.

Even low intensity movement can help.

“The more you feel able to do, the more you want to do. It’s a positive spiral that has real physical changes,” says Joaquim.