The Science Behind Why Exercise Helps Depression

January 1st, 2021

A hiking man reflecting.

Did you know that exercise helps depression and uplifts the mood? Here’s the science behind it:

How does it help depression?

High intensity exercise such as running, high intensity interval training, and spinning releases endorphins which are essentially “feel good” brain chemicals. A “runners high” is a good example of endorphins spurring positive feelings.

If you aren’t a high intensity exerciser, don’t worry. Moderate to lower intensity exercise on an ongoing basis also helps. It causes nerve cells to grow and make new connections in the hippocampus of the brain, which is the area that helps regulate mood, thereby improving depression (Harvard Health). But, the key is, exercising consistently.

How much do I need to get the benefits?

Thirty minutes or more of exercise per day for 3-5 days per week can significantly improve depression, based on many studies. Smaller amounts of physical activity may help, but the evidence is less conclusive, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How do I motivate myself?

When we’re feeling depressed, it can be hard to motivate ourselves to get up and move. Here are a few tips that can help:

  • Choose an exercise you enjoy. Exercises people tend to enjoy more than others include yoga, dancing, walking, hiking, biking, and swimming.
  • Select a time when you typically feel more energy. It can make a difference!
  • Do something you enjoy while exercising, such as listening to music or being out in nature.
  • Get a good night’s sleep and fuel yourself with good nutrition, which will make you feel less sluggish.
  • Vary your exercises. For example, get the “highs” from higher intensity exercise 2 days per week and do more moderate or lower intensity exercise the other 2-3 days per week.
  • Finally, if you sense a lift of your mood after exercising, keep that in mind for next time. Write it down if you have to. Feeling uplifted and happier is one of the best natural ways to motivate yourself!

By Katie Talarico