The Link Between Exercise and Depression

We all know that exercise is good for physical health, but how about mental health. Dr. Matt Bitsko examines the link between activity and the symptoms of depression.  

What is depression?

Depression is a mood disorder that impacts the way you think, feel, and behave. Common symptoms can include chronic sadness, a loss of interest in things you usually enjoy, and a sense of hopelessness. “Minor” symptoms are common for us all from time to time as we lead our busy lives. Symptoms of depression become more “major” when they start to impact our daily lives – our work, school, or relationships with those close to us.

Currently, 8% of the adult population in the United States is diagnosed and being treated for depression. We know, however, that many more people go either undiagnosed OR without treatment. While women often report higher rates of depression than men, the rates of depression for both men and women are highest during the ages of 40-59.

Ways that depression is treated:

Depression is often treated by: “talk therapy” (speaking with a qualified counselor), medications, or a combination of both. Talk therapy is often suggested as the first step for assessment and treatment, and medications are usually recommended for more severe symptoms.

Exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression. Why? Exercise is proven to:

Although scientists are still not sure when and how much exercise is helpful for depression, I would recommend the following steps to maximize your health, happiness, and safety:

  1. If you feel that chronic sadness or depression is starting to come into your life, get moving!
  2. If you feel that depression is still taking hold of your life: get moving AND get “talk therapy.”
  3. If depression has tightened its hold on your life: get moving, get talk therapy, and consider medications.

Physical activity vs. exercise: Increased activity doesn’t have to be a formal exercise program.

If you have never done a formal exercise program, start with increasing your activities – a short walk around the block 3-5 days a week; increased gardening or other activities you enjoy that get you up and moving.

Just get moving!

If you are used to formal exercise, seek to increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of your activity or exercise program.

Barriers? What do you need to ensure your success?

Goal Setting – “SMART” goals are all the rage these days, and for good reason. They can be helpful tips to ensure your success:

Additional goal setting tips:

– Making your goal “public” will help others both remind and support you.

– Make sure your goals are stated in “positive terms” – this means what you will do, not what you won’t do.

Conclusion: In the end, your level of activity will impact the way you think and feel. Increasing your level of activity or adopting a more formal exercise program can greatly improve your mood and happiness.

Helpful Links to learn more: It’s important to find quality links on the internet.


Dr. Matt Bitsko is a psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU who works with children diagnosed with cancer, sickle cell disease, and hemophilia and their families. He is a proud member of the Board of Directors for the Cameron K Gallagher Foundation, whose mission is to raise awareness for adolescent depression and anxiety.