Depression and Exercise: A Better Prescription

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Life can get a little bumpy. It tends to ebb and  flow; one moment we are on cloud nine, things are going really well for us in every aspect of our lives. And then out of nowhere, something goes wrong.


Loss of a job, car needs fixing, parents get sick, kids struggling in school, a relationship comes to an end. When times are rough, there has to be a way we react to it. Sometimes people reach for food to eat their emotions. Others reach for the bottle. Some shut down completely. 


When things get serious, one way, and I think a much healthier way to fight depression and hard times, is to workout. Even if you’re not out to get that stellar physique, even if you really don’t care all that much about having a six-pack, fitness is still the best cure for what ails you. Especially when it’s all in your head.


According to the Mayo Clinic, here’s how exercise and fitness in general can help alleviate depression:

  • Releases feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression. Take a look at the cardio bunnies next time you’re at the local gym or rec center. Do they look sad or upset? They might not be grinning from ear to ear as they are sprinting or cycling, but they are definitely not unhappy.
  • Reducing immune system chemicals that can worsen depression.
  • Increases body temperature, which may have calming effects. Think hot yoga or even a sauna. You don’t encounter too many stressed out people in those places.


Exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits too. It can help you:

  • Confidence Booster. There’s no doubt when you hit a weight loss goal or finish a race or some sort of fitness challenge, you feel great about yourself! People around you take notice as well and the amount of compliments and positive feedback is an awesome way to boost self-esteem.
  • No Worries. When you’re focused on working up a sweat and lifting some weights or sprinting around a track, you don’t have time to concentrate on the daily worries or anxieties that come with depression. It’s a great way to take your mind off of these things.
  • Socializing with others. Exercise, especially group fitness classes, automatically force you out of the house and into a social environment. Even if you’re walking around the neighborhood is social as you can just exchange a smile or a hello to someone who might put a smile on your face and improve your mood.
  • Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage anxiety or depression is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by eating your emotions or just hoping anxiety and depression will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.


If you’re ready to try and snap out of the funk you might find yourself in, exercise is a great way to fix this. Getting started, though, can be really tough for a lot of people. And sticking to an exercise program is even more difficult, depressed or not. So how can you get started and stick with it?


Just like any other goal, you have to start somewhere. Even if it’s a small step.

  • Set a realistic goal. When I suggest realistic, I make sure my client understands what I mean by that. That means you have already set aside the TIME you are willing to commit to an exercise program. That might mean 10 minutes a day. That might mean an hour 3 days a week. Everyone is different. So think of the TIME you have to do this and then make THAT your goal. “I will ride the stationary bike in my basement 10 minutes a day.” “I will jog around the block before I leave for work everyday.” “I will do 5 minutes of abs before I go to bed twice a week.”
  • Keep a calendar or some sort of tracking device to monitor the days in a row you have reached your daily goals. It’s so much more motivating to SEE your progress, even if it’s just an X on a calendar. The feeling of achievement as the days go by and you keep making that check mark or marking the days off to indicate “Yes, I stuck with it today!” is awesome and anyone who has reached a goal like that will tell you how awesome it is. But if you’re not really paying attention to how often you’re making progress, it’s not very motivating and you might stop before you get that momentum going. So keep track of it!
  • Make sure you’re having fun. So many people view fitness and exercise as a chore, or something they despise doing for one reason or another. If that’s the case, figure out what it is you DO like doing. And turn it into an exercise. It really doesn’t have to be anything extravagant or athletic. It can be as simple as doing yardwork, or taking the dog for a walk. It’s simply an activity that you want to identify as one that you enjoy and one that gets you moving. Even if it’s just a few steps at a time. Remember, you don’t have to sign up for a marathon or a fitness competition in order to get in shape. It just requires consistency and doing something you really like.
  • Ask for help. This could be professional help like a psychologist or therapist or it could be a friend. Someone else should really be there to push you a little further or simply  just talk to or be your workout buddy. They could hold you accountable or they could even suggest things for you to do, besides exercise, to help with your depression and anxiety.


Take some time right now to make your fitness plan. Get inspiration from this website and other blogs/sites to get you started, keep you motivated, and turn that anxiety into anticipation for your next workout. You might develop a healthy addiction…to fitness!  



  1. Mead GE, et al. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2009; CD004366.
  2. Carek PJ, et al. Exercise for the treatment of depression and anxiety. International Journal Psychiatry in Medicine. 2011;41:15.
  3. Gill A, et al. Does exercise alleviate symptoms of depression? The Journal of Family Practice. 2010;59:530.
  4. Lee RA. Anxiety. In: Rakel D. Integrative Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2007. Accessed Aug. 19, 2011.
  5. Strohle A. Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders. Journal of Neural Transmission. 2009;116:777.
  6. Lowry CA, et al. That warm fuzzy feeling: Brain serotonergic neurons and the regulation of emotion. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2009;23:392.
  7. Mental Illness and Exercise. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed Aug. 19, 2011.
  8. Hall-Flavin DK (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Aug. 25, 2011.

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