Benefits of Physical Activity

What does exercise do?

LOTS! Here's a range of reasons why exercise helps people with depression.

  • Exercise leads to an increased release of endorphins in the body. These chemicals may help combat depression and make us feel happier.
  • Exercise helps us to get active, meet new people and even develop new friendships. This stops us from feeling isolated and unsupported.
  • Exercise is an active, sustainable recovery choice. A common characteristic of depression is a sense of not having, or having lost, the ability to make choices.
  • Exercise can give us new goals and a sense of purpose — we have something positive to focus on and aim for.
  • Exercise can boost our self-esteem — it can improve the way we look and how we feel about ourselves. It can also help us master new skills and give us a sense of accomplishment.
  • Exercise can divert us from a preoccupation with negative thoughts — which are characteristic of depression — and provide an alternative focus for attention. Some people report that exercise creates an internal "flow experience" that has been described as "a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter."
  • Exercise has a relatively low health risk, unlike antidepressant medications which carry significant risk of unpleasant — and perhaps dangerous — side-effects.
  • Exercise has many positive "side-effects" such as reduced risk of several major diseases, healthier muscles, bones and joints, improved cardiovascular fitness and a 20 to 30 percent reduction in the chance of premature mortality. It can also increase energy levels and improve physical appearance.
  • Exercise is cost-effective and easily available. It does not have to cost a lot to start walking. With proper footwear and clothing, walking is a perfect activity to derive health benefits from.
  • Exercise is a "normalizing" experience. Some consumers dislike the idea of taking medication or undergoing psychotherapy because of the stigma associated with these treatments. Exercise, on the other hand, tends to be seen as something done by healthy people. Through exercise, people can self-identify as "normal" and "healthy," and this association may help improve their mood. Exercising with others also promotes social inclusion, which itself tends to alleviate feelings of depression.

When I'm depressed, I feel like I don't have any energy. How would I be able to keep up an exercise program?

  • It's true that starting an exercise program can be challenging, especially if we feel down, and maybe haven't done much physical activity for a while. That's why it's important to start slowly and build up, and to develop a personal program that is going to be manageable and fun.
  • Although it's commonly believed that people with depression will not be motivated to exercise, retention rates are often much higher than for other treatments such as medication. Offering exercise as a treatment for mild or moderate depression is very much in the spirit of enhancing patient choice which is itself an important factor in facilitating recovery from a condition that is characterized by a sense of powerlessness.
  • Exercise is a popular treatment. It's important to note that consumers who have experienced depression frequently cite exercise as being an important and positive part of their recovery program. One study found that exercise was ranked by consumers as "the most important element" in a comprehensive treatment program for depression.

Adapted from Up and Running: Exercise Therapy and the Treatment of Mild or Moderate Depression in Primary Care, Mental Health Foundation (UK), March 2005.

This report outlines the benefits of using exercise therapy in cases of mild or moderate depression, the obstacles to its more widespread use, and how these obstacles might be overcome. The aim of Up and Running? is to promote exercise therapy for mild or moderate depression as a realistic and readily available tool for doctors, and a genuine option that patients can both understand and choose for themselves.

See also Up and Running: How Exercise Can Help Beat Depression – Information for Patients, Mental Health Foundation (UK), June 2005. NOTE: Some information in this booklet is specific to the United Kingdom.