Can Exercise Fight Depression?

Does exercise help with depression or it does not? Again and again studies on this subject have produced different results. Now the question seems to be clarified.

Current scientific evidence strongly suggests that sports are very effective in fighting depression. Many studies revealed that regular exercise leads to changes in brain chemistry in people with depression. Changes like these could otherwise only be achieved through medication.

What is Depression?

Depression is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness. At least every tenth person suffers from it at least once in their lives. Typical symptoms are feelings of sadness, loss of energy and drive, fears, and repetitive thought. Depression can also have a strong influence on physical health like on cases of diabetes and arthritis.


The Ancient Greeks recognized the state of depression thousands of years ago. They called this state of mind melancholy and recommended exercising to treat it. This is not new knowledge!

We do not yet know why exercise fights depression so well. Many factors are involved, which makes it difficult to get a definitive answer.

Many effects of exercise on depression are already known. It can be said that exercise:

  • lifts the mood
  • increases motivation and reduces passivity
  • distracts from problems
  • produces successful experiences 
  • breaks downward spirals
  • group sports provide psychological support 

These effects are also caused by the changes in brain chemistry that are triggered by exercise:

  • Physical exercise triggers the release of the happiness hormone endorphin, especially during endurance sports. This lightens the mood.
  • Sport probably also boosts serotonin production. This neurotransmitter is something like the messenger of happiness in the human body. A high level of serotonin signals that everything is going well. Depression patients often have very low levels of serotonin, which is why they are often treated with drugs to raise these levels.
  • Physical exertion increases the production of norepinephrine. This important messenger substance is otherwise often found in depressed people in low concentrations.
  • In addition, exercise has a strong psychotherapeutic component. It  provides a way to break out your own passivity and negative thoughts and has a positive effect on self-esteem.
  • Movement stimulates cell growth in the hippocampus. Normally, the cells in the hippocampus tend to die in cases of depression. This is counteracted by sport.
  • Finally the stress hormone cortisol is reduced during exercise which also has a positive effect on the general atmosphere of the body.

Open questions

Despite all these findings we do not yet fully understand how this works. How often and how long you should do sports to fight depression is unknown. Our recommendation is that you should do something at least twice a week, if not more often. There is no need to overdo it though. 
The question of which sports are optimal is also still waiting to be answered. Some studies have shown that strength training is best, others swear by the effect of endurance sports.
Remember that you cannot "run away" from depression. It is a serious medical condition that badly needs professional evaluation. It is best to discuss which sport is suitable for you with your doctor as well as what effects can be expected. Then you can approach the matter with realistic expectations. Drug treatments in combination with sports have proven to be very effective. Regular exercise also contributes to keeping depressive episodes away.