Most people have experienced something called a “runner’s high.” It is the euphoric feeling after engaging in a physical activity, such as running, caused by a release of endorphins and other chemicals in the brain. What many people may not know is that regularly engaging in physical activity could help regulate long-term mood, not just our mood immediately following exercise. There is a large pool of data showing that physical activity can help improve the mood of people with clinical depression, and to a lesser extent, anxiety. This article will briefly discuss the most current consensus on whether or not physical activity improves depression and anxiety.
Physical activity may be comparable to medication in treating depression
A study spanning 6 months compared the effects of: aerobic exercise, medication therapy or a combination of both on depressive symptoms in those with major depressive disorder 1. After the study, 60% of the patients in the exercise group, 65% of patients in the medication group and 69% of patients in the combined group showed remission or absence of clinical depression. There were no significant differences between groups on this outcome. At a 10 month follow up the exercise group had the lowest rate of depression: 30% in the exercise group, 52% in the medication group and 55% in the combined group showed symptoms of depression.
Another study employing the “public health dose,” found that exercise was effective at reducing minor to major depressive disorder 2. There were 4 aerobic exercise groups differing by the amount of calories burned per group. After the study, 47% of subjects in the higher intensity exercise group, 30% of those in the low intensity group and 29% of those in the control group showed reduced symptoms of depression as measured by a test taken before the study and at the conclusion of the study. Only the higher intensity group showed significant improvements in depressive symptoms, while the lower intensity group did not and was similar to the placebo.
Physical activity may reduce acute feelings of anxiety
While there is overwhelming evidence showing physical activity can improve depression the research surrounding physical activity and reduction of anxiety is not as strong3. The few studies showing beneficial effects of exercise on acute anxiety involve older adult populations and may not be generalizable to other age groups. A study of 42 older adults (average age of 68 years) found that 12 weeks of strength training reduced anxiety symptoms4. A 24 week study of elderly men found high resistance exercise improved mood and reduced anxiety symptoms compared to a control group5. There are a few studies which have found no effect of exercise on feelings of anxiety. While exercise may help anxiety additional studies must be performed before a definitive conclusion can be made.
Words of caution
While exercise may improve symptoms of depression do not be so quick to throw out your anti-depressants. Exercise will not help everyone with depression. Severe depression may require the person to use medication in addition to exercise. Even if exercise does not help your depression do not stop, exercise has many additional health benefits beyond improving depression. Speak to your doctor if you begin exercising and decide you want to reduce or discontinue your mediation.
There is overwhelming evidence that regularly engaging in physical activity can help improve symptoms in those with mild to severe depressive disorder. In order to experience these benefits, physical activity must be performed on a consistent basis. There is less support showing physical activity can help with anxiety. It is possible that physical activity could help those with anxiety but more studies must be performed first. Always speak to your doctor if you find exercise helps your depression and you are thinking about reducing or discontinuing your medication. Never abruptly stop taking medication without consulting your doctor.
- Babyak, M., Blumenthal, J. A., Herman, S., Khatri, P., Doraiswamy, M., Moore, K., … & Krishnan, K. R. (2000). Exercise treatment for major depression: maintenance of therapeutic benefit at 10 months. Psychosomatic medicine, 62(5), 633-638.
- Dunn, A. L., Trivedi, M. H., Kampert, J. B., Clark, C. G., & Chambliss, H. O. (2005). Exercise treatment for depression: efficacy and dose response. American journal of preventive medicine, 28(1), 1-8.
- Paluska, S. A., & Schwenk, T. L. (2000). Physical activity and mental health. Sports medicine, 29(3), 167-180.
- Tsutsumi, T., Don, B. M., Zaichkowsky, L. D., & Delizonna, L. L. (2001). Physical fitness and psychological benefits of strength training in community dwelling older adults. Applied human science, 16(6), 257-266.
- Cassilhas, R. C., Antunes, H. K. M., Tufik, S., & De Mello, M. T. (2010). Mood, anxiety, and serum IGF-1 in elderly men given 24 weeks of high resistance exercise. Perceptual and Motor skills, 110(1), 265-276.