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Why People with Depression Should Exercise More

Me in the morning: flat, lethargic and grumpy. Overly sensitive, reacting with shouting or tears to the slightest trigger. An overwhelming sense of apathy, interspersed with moments of rage or deep sadness. Things are hard.

Me in the afternoon: energized, motivated and productive. Calm and peaceful in my own mind, focusing on what needs to get done (work). Still pretty sensitive, but with enough presence not to yell at my loved ones.

What’s changed? I spent half an hour running. And when I say running, I really mean shuffling along at a slow jog. It’s not hardcore.

Exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve your mood, even and especially if you have depression. Numerous studies have shown exercise to be as effective, or even more than, antidepressant medication. (I am not saying you should stop your meds.) It also happens to be free, and its major side effects are all positives: decreased blood pressure, weight maintenance, improved strength, better sleep and more.

Chances are, if you read much on the Internet, you’ve seen these kind of stats before. So why aren’t more doctors prescribing movement for people’s moods, and why aren’t more people doing it?

Well — getting out and going for a run is pretty difficult for the average person who doesn’t have depression. With almost half the population not getting enough exercise, even with all their (supposedly) functioning neural and cognitive systems, what hope does someone who has depression have?

My answer? The beauty of instant gratification.

When the general population is trying to maintain a regular movement program, they are usually doing so for reasons that exist in the future — to avoid heart disease, to lose weight, to gain strength, to run a marathon, to get a bikini body. None of these things happen the very first time you exercise. This means you need to remain committed to exercising even while you can’t see immediate progress toward your goal. But when you commit to moving to improve your mood? The very first time you get moving, you feel better.

I’ve gotten to the point where, when I start to get really down, I actually crave exercise. I know that it gives me a sweet relief from the constant repetitive thoughts about how terrible life is. I know it gives me energy and motivation.

I know I will feel better right away. So feeling lethargic, unmotivated and awful, rather than being a reason to stay on the couch, actually becomes the very reason to get off the couch.

Taking note of your mood before and after exercise can really help to prove this to you in the long run. Just a simple score out of 10, where zero is ‘I feel the worst I’ve ever felt’ and 10 is ‘I feel so freaking amazing’ can give you a nice visual about how exercise improves your mood.

If you struggle to get going, it can also be really helpful to involve a coach, a family member or a qualified health professional who can help you make a plan and set some goals. The important thing is to reframe your perspective so exercise doesn’t become something that you do when you have the energy and motivation, but something that you do in order to get the energy and motivation.


Blumenthal, J. A., Babyak, M. A., Murali Doraiswamy, P., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B. M., Barbour, K. A., … Sherwood, A. (2007). Exercise and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(7), 587–596. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e318148c19a

Carek, P.J., Laibstain, S. E., and Carek, S. M. (2011). Exercise for the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety. Int J Psychiatry Med January 41(1), 15-28, doi:10.2190/PM.41.1.c

Cooney, G.M., Dwan, K., Greig, C.A., Lawlor, D.A., Rimer, J., Waugh, F.R., … Mead, G.E. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2013) Issue 9. Art. No.: CD004366. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub6.

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Why People with Depression Should Exercise More

Louise Pontin

Louise is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) specialising in mental health. She works as an AEP in the development of a new Youth Early Psychosis Program and in private practice, where she helps people learn how to use movement to manage their mood. She holds a Bachelor of Exercise and Health Science and a Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology. She has extra training in ACT and Non-Violent Communication (NVC) and uses these approaches in her one-on-one work with clients. Louise also writes a blog about moving for your mind, and runs community workshops in NVC, mindful-movement, and self-compassion for exercise and health behaviours.

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APA Reference
Pontin, L. (2018). Why People with Depression Should Exercise More. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 26 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.