Getting Started: Exercise for Depression

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 22, 2010
3 min read

If you’re feeling depressed, it can be difficult to get yourself off the couch, much less exercise. But exercise may be one of the best things you can do for your depression. Physical activity can make you feel better, improve your mood, and help you sleep better.

Many studies have shown the benefits of exercise for people of all ages who have depression. And some studies show that exercising can be just as effective in treating depression as taking medication.

Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to help ease depression. Any type of activity you can do is likely to boost your mood and increase your energy level. So whether you walk around the block, go for a run, or join a yoga or dance class, chances are exercise will make you feel better.

Here are six tips for exercises to help with depression.

If while feeling depressed, the most you can do is take a short walk, start there. The next day, try to do a little more and build on that. For some people with depression, the first step is joining a class or exercise group. Whatever exercise you do, the important thing is that you do it every day and stick with it.

“My depression used to be really bad in the morning,” says Lisa Brennan, who has had bouts of depression since her teen years. “But if I could manage to get to my yoga class first thing in the morning, it changed the direction of my whole day. When things were really bad, that class kept me going.”

“Having social support for exercise is crucial when you’re depressed,” says Keith Johnsgard, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at San Jose State University and author of Conquering Depression & Anxiety through Exercise. “A lot of folks won’t exercise on their own, so I tell patients to enlist a family member or good friend to be their exercise partner. It should be someone who is willing to help them get out of the house and exercise every day.”

Another option is to join a class or exercise group or hire a personal trainer. Being accountable to a teacher or friend is what keeps some people with depression going.

If you don’t like a type of exercise, chances are you’re not going to do it, whether or not you’re depressed. But if you enjoy what you’re doing -- whether it’s tai chi, bicycling, or walking -- you’ll be more likely to stick with it over time.

If you haven’t found the perfect exercise yet, don’t give up. “I just kept trying different types of exercise classes until I found one that I liked,” Brennan says. “I also really like walking with my dog, so that’s something I can do every day.”

“The days you feel least like exercising are the most important days to get out and do it,” Johnsgard says. “Those are the days when you will feel best after doing it.”

It’s more likely that you’ll exercise if it’s easy and convenient. Walking and running don’t require much equipment and are easy to do from nearly anywhere. The same goes for a gym or exercise class -- if it’s easy to get to and the timing is convenient, it’s more likely that you’ll go.

If the thought of exercise feels like a burden, find ways to incorporate it into your day. For example, try walking on errands instead of driving or take the stairs instead of using the elevator. Or, if you’re watching TV, try riding an exercise bike or walking in place instead of sitting.

Once you start exercising, you should find that it becomes easier, and you may find it’s something you look forward to. “I think the most important thing is to just start doing something, and from there it really does get easier,” Brennan says.

Show Sources


Freeman, M. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, March 2010; vol 71(6): pp 669-681.

Greer, T. Current Psychiatry Reports, 2009; vol 11: pp 466-472.

Eric Endlich, PhD, clinical psychologist, Newton, Mass.

Lisa Brennan, Oakland, Calif.

Keith Johnsgard, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology, San Jose State University, Calif.

National Institute of Mental Health: “Depression.”

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