For Depression, Exercise May Beat Medication in Complementing Therapy

Precise recommendations as to how much exercise and which types of exercise are most effective have yet to be determined, but several preliminary studies suggest that exercise is superior to medications when it comes to fighting depression. Recently, TIME Magazine profiled psychologist Jasper Smits. Smits, along with fellow researcher Michael Otto from Boston University, recently published a book specifically for therapists entitled Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders (Oxford, 2009). They find exercise to have almost equal benefit, and less risk, compared to prescription drugs, as far as depression in adults is concerned.

The research suggests that exercise releases chemicals into both the body and the brain that help battle depression in two ways. First, there’s the immediate rush of hormones that induce a positive mood. These trigger periods of genuine happiness and lighter moods immediately after a period of even moderate exercise. Then, there is the fact that these chemicals behave, in the brain, much like anti-depression medications do. The way they communicate with neurotransmitters, and the way they encourage the brain to communicate with itself, have found to be quite similar.

Yet exercise comes without many of the risks and side effects that are associated with prescription drugs. Quite the opposite, it has a positive benefit on the body, and it’s also free. Exercise is expected to be especially useful when paired with therapy and counseling. The reason no specific guidelines as to sufficient amount have been established is that the researched has simply not gotten much attention. Studies on prescription drugs are funded largely by the companies that produce them, and since exercise is free and most people are in a condition to pursue it on their own, studies are far less prevalent. But even without studies to prove its efficacy against depression, exercise is good for the body anyway, so long as one is healthy enough to do it.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • runninfast

    June 22nd, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    Yes! My runs always work for me- very therapeutic

  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    June 23rd, 2010 at 3:49 AM

    When working with depressed clients, one of the first things I do is look with them at how to get their bodies moving. That exercise is also helpful with reducing stress and anxiety is particularly important, since it’s been shown that depressed and anxious people may beat a higher risk of suicide than those who are just depressed.

    So it’s great to see more and more studies done about this win-win intervention.

  • Inez

    June 23rd, 2010 at 4:48 AM

    My question is how do you get someone who already feels so bad and does not want to get up out of bed and encourage them with the message that exercise is going to be good for them? They can barely find the strength to get up out of bed as it is, much less add vigorous activity to their day. This would be something to move toward as a goal for sure but not really something that I foresee being able to be prescribed right out of the gate because I would hazard a guess that most people are not going to be able to do that much this soon.

  • fly high

    June 23rd, 2010 at 5:15 AM

    it has been well proven and documented that alternative methods are the best and pharmaceuticals are on their way out now…so it only makes sense to concentrate and research more into these alternative methods for better treatment of disorders.

  • donovan m

    June 23rd, 2010 at 11:52 AM

    @Inez:you are describing there my friend…ever since I lost my brother two months away,I just cannot concentrate on anything and just feel so depressed,…so blue…there’s no hope around :(

  • David

    July 6th, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    Too tired to exercise? Try this… brush teeth SAME time each morning, brush teeth while doing slight knee bends, add a purposeful (but unnecessary) walk up and down stairs (or walk around apartment), then expand to 2, 3 laps. Build from there, but do something (anything) at that SAME time each day.

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