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Exercise May Not Help, Depending Upon Your Genes

One of the oft-repeated mantras from doctors and mental health professionals is that you need to stay active in your life. It helps combat everything from heart disease to depression. At least that’s been the conventional wisdom.

But a recent study questions this conventional wisdom and suggests, like virtually everything in life, it is more complicated than a simple mantra.

The new study, reported in Sunday’s USA Today, suggests that your genes help determine whether exercise is going to help improve your mood:

[The] study included questionnaires on exercise and evaluations of mental health every two years. Changes in exercise didn’t correlate with improvements or declines in mental health, he says. Even if one identical twin began exercising he didn’t become less depressed or anxious than his twin.

Instead, says [study researcher] DeGeus, the evidence points to common genes influencing both mental health and exercise behavior: The most mentally healthy tend to be active, and genes, not environment, largely determine who they will be. “I’m not saying exercise might not help someone’s mood. But it also may not work at all,” he says.

However, this new finding is in direct contradiction to a wealth of research that suggests that indeed exercise helps with a depressed mood (see, for example, van Gool et. al., 2007, which followed 1169 adults over 6 years and found that exercise throughout the 6 years was associated with the absence of a depressed mood and Smith et. al., 2007, among many others).

And some studies, such as Blumenthal et. al.’s (2007) study of 202 adults, show that exercise can be just as effective as psychiatric medications (and both exercise and medication are not significantly different than a sugar pill placebo!):

All treatment groups had lower HAM-D scores after treatment; scores for the active treatment groups were not significantly different from the placebo group (p=.23). Conclusions: The efficacy of exercise in patients seems generally comparable with patients receiving antidepressant medication and both tend to be better than the placebo in patients with MDD. Placebo response rates were high, suggesting that a considerable portion of the therapeutic response is determined by patient expectations, ongoing symptom monitoring, attention, and other nonspecific factors.

The fact that genes may interact with our ability to effectively treat depression should not be new news to anyone. The key here is to understand that if one treatment for depression doesn’t work for a particular person, they should try another. And despite this most recent study’s findings, exercise remains a useful tool to employ against depression (and it’s free, too!).


Blumenthal, J.A. et. al. (2007). Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol 69(7), 587-596.

Smith, P. J. et. al. (2007). Effects of exercise and weight loss on depressive symptoms among men and women with hypertension. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Vol 63(5), 463-469.

van Gool, C. H.; Kempen, G. I. J. M., & Bosma, H. (2007). Associations between lifestyle and depressed mood: Longitudinal results from the Maastricht Aging Study. American Journal of Public Health, Vol 97(5), 887-894.

Exercise May Not Help, Depending Upon Your Genes

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Exercise May Not Help, Depending Upon Your Genes. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 18 Mar 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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