Exercise to Combat Depression and Anxiety: Changing the Body and Mind

Woman stretchingThe benefits of exercise for physical health have been conclusively demonstrated in multiple studies. Most people know that exercise lowers blood pressure, reduces obesity, improves cardiovascular health, and can prolong life. But we live in an instant gratification society where these long-term rewards often don’t seem like enough to warrant taking time out of a busy schedule to engage in exhausting exercise. Exercise, however, isn’t just a long-term strategy for better physical health; it can also help stave off depression and anxiety, and the mood-boosting benefits are almost immediate.

The Endorphin Rush
Endorphins act as neurotransmitters—chemicals that carry nerve signals throughout the body.  During strenuous exercise, the muscles release glycogen for energy. When glycogen stores are used up, the body then releases endorphins, which can create an immediate high and sense of well-being. While an endorphin rush only occurs with moderate to high-intensity exercise, people who are out of shape tend to release endorphins more quickly. If you haven’t exercised in a while, you may only need to exercise for a few minutes to get this feel-good rush.

Treating Depression
Depression, particularly chronic depression, can be extremely challenging to treat, and depressed patients frequently find they have to cycle through several medications to find the right drug. But there may be a simpler solution for depression. Several studies have found that exercise can help reduce depression and anxiety. Even more promising, one study discovered that 30 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity exercise a few times a week is as effective in treating depression as an antidepressant drug. Depressed patients saw benefits in as little as 1 week.

But the happiness benefits don’t begin and end with depressed patients. Even people who’ve never experienced depression can get a mood boost from exercise. The quick burst of energy in conjunction with the increased brain activity that exercise stimulates can help improve your mood on both a short- and long-term basis. Exercise gets you moving and may encourage you to make friends or leave your house. Both practices can help stave off depression and improve mood.

Improved Self-Esteem
We live in a world where few people will ever be able to exercise themselves into the body that the media promote as being ideal. For some people, this is a reason not to exercise. After all, if they can’t meet the unreachable ideal, then what’s the point? But research shows that even if you can’t become model-thin—and even if you don’t lose any weight at all—exercise has a powerful impact on body image. People who exercise regularly tend to judge their bodies according to function rather than form. Women in particular experience increased self-esteem. A woman who exercises regularly is more likely to admire her stomach for its strength instead of hating it because it’s not completely flat.

Less Pain
A sedentary lifestyle can lead to chronic pain. Muscle tension, cracking joints, and painful knots can all be caused by spending the day crouched over a computer. Exercise greatly reduces muscle tension and can therefore reduce chronic pain. People feel happier when they’re not in pain, and the benefits of exercise to muscle health can occur surprisingly quickly. With just a week of exercise, you can expect to begin feeling looser and to expand your range of motion. Especially if you’re constantly taking pain medicine or rubbing your sore neck, this benefit can be a powerful ticket to increased happiness.


  1. Audesirk, T., Audesirk, G., Byers, B. E. (2008). Biology: Life on earth with physiology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  2. Baldauf, S. (2009, November 12). What science is discovering about exercise and depression. US News. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/articles/2009/11/12/what-science-is-discovering-about-exercise-and-depression
  3. Gurd, V. (n.d.). Exercise helps depression and anxiety as much as drugs do. Trusted MD Network. Retrieved from http://trusted.md/blog/vreni_gurd/2011/02/06/exercise_helps_depression_and_anxiety_as_much_as_drugs_do


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  • jonathan

    August 31st, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    I used to hate exercising earlier but a couple of months ago a cousin got me into cycling and I find myself doing it everyday now.I feel a lot better now and my lung capacity has increased a lot.Exercise can be done in a fun way, you just got to find what you like best.

  • bennett malone

    August 31st, 2012 at 2:53 PM

    Hey my kids are fairly young and they already know that if daddy comes home and he doesn’t get to workout then that means that he’s going to be in a bad mood, period. I love that my wife allows me to have that time because it doesn’t take long to figure out that I need just that liitle half hour to decompress and unwind and then I can be all theirs for the evening. I wish that I had discovered sooner, like at least college, just how good exercising daily makes me feel. It is like a rush that nothing else compares to (well, that you can do in public) and I would encourage anyone who is struggling with depression and see what a change it can make for them too.

  • Nicole

    August 31st, 2012 at 5:48 PM

    Not only do I find myself full of energy after a good exercise session followed by a shower but my mood’s better too.I am happier and cheerful and can even be pumped up enough to do some extra work at home.Not that the kids complain about it :)

  • Faith

    September 1st, 2012 at 5:54 AM

    I am that person who almost feels guilty for taking time for me to exercise. I know that sounds ridiculous, but surely I am not the only mom out there who feels that way?! I just can’t get it together enough to get up before work to do it, and after work, well, there’s always dinner to cook and laundry to fold and homework to help with so. . . you can see that I let my needs fall to the end of the list each time! This is a conscious choice that I make and I know that I am the only one who can change that. But after reading all these remarks about how good it makes you feel when you do take that time, then I am determined to carve out a little time for me so that I can fit it in. Thanks for the encouragement and motivation!

  • r flower

    September 1st, 2012 at 7:29 AM

    its a catch 22 situation for me..I do exercise like 3-4 times a week but when I am lost in sad thoughts or depressed I just want to stay in bed and exercise or any other activity is a complete no-no for me..I don’t know how I should do fix my depression if Im unable to take a step towards the antidote..!

  • HeartOfBold

    September 1st, 2012 at 2:03 PM

    How many people you know who exercise regularly or do a lot about their fitness sit and get depressed or be sad in general?Not too many?That’s no surprise.Exercise has innumerable benefits not only for the body but also for the mind and this report comes as no surprise.Maybe its finally time to actually use that gym membership,eh? ;)

  • raechel T

    September 1st, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    My therapist was indeed the first person who encouraged me to get out and get moving, that he promised it would make me feel better than almost anything that he could do or prescribe. And you know what? I still enjoy talking with him, but I love my workouts even more. Both things are good for me, but my workouts can take me to a place that helps me trascend all of the others rotten stuff that I have to live with on a daily basis. I feel stronger, and remarkably, I feel happier. I always thought that to heal that it would take thousands of dollars of therapy and all kinds of other stuff, but really, it takes taking one step at a time, fully and completely away from the pain.

  • gavin palmer

    September 2nd, 2012 at 4:37 AM

    All natural endorphin rush is awesome! Nothing chemically created can even compare! And nothing chemically created can make you feel as good about yourself as the completion of a hard, punishing workout will!

  • Lea

    September 2nd, 2012 at 3:33 PM

    I would really love something natural and uncomplicated like exercise for my anxiety issues.But will I really see any help and gain? I need to know because no matter what I’m doing I’m constantly anxious about work and other things and I’m not sure exercise can have any solo-time in my mind. I think I would be worrying just the same even while exercising. Anyone have had this problem?

  • Emmy h

    September 3rd, 2012 at 6:27 AM

    Recently my daughter and I have started running together and for me this has become the best therapy! For a while I had been having this feeling that we were losing touch with each other and that we had nothing in common anymore. Honestly, I was pretty depressed about all of this because we had always been close and I felt that slipping away from me. I thought about trying therapy, but it never seemed like there was anything big enough going on to warrant that, yet I was sliding further and further into my sadness over what I felt like I had lost. Running though has brought us back together. Funny how something that she and I had always enjoyed doing separately we now do together and it is so much better than before. Typically we don’t even talk that much, but it is something that is ours that we can do together and I will always cherish this time and be so thankful how it has brought us together again.

  • eyeCyou

    September 3rd, 2012 at 11:57 PM

    Exercise definitely helps body and mind.I have been into regular exercise for a couple of years now and I just cannot describe how much it has helped me cope with stress and anxiety that plagued me regularly before I started the routine.Physical health and mental health both in the same package!

  • Glenn

    September 4th, 2012 at 11:17 AM

    I have a problem with this whole “less pain” issue because i have tried every exercise known to man and it doesn’t make my knees hurt any leass. Maybe if I could find something that I really enjoyed doing that would take away some of the pain because i wouldn’t focus on it so much if I loved what I was doing but I just haven’t found that exact right fit yet.

  • Audrey

    September 4th, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    @ Glenn- have you tried swimming? It puts a lot less pressure on the knees than other formas of exercise can, and it can be a great workout! If you haven’t tried that you should because it can also be a good way to work out all of that stress that most of us deal with daily.

  • Libby crowe

    September 5th, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    I would like to say that this was my experience with exercise and battling my way out of depression, but for me it turned into something else unhealthy. The more I came out of my depression, I guess I developed this other urge to exercise all the time to the point where I was making myself sick from that too. I lost far too much weight, and I would literally rearrange my whole day just to get in a workout. This included blowing off friends, work, anything because I felt so horribly guilty if I didn’t. But I never seemed to feel guilty about losing out on friends and family during that time. All I became concerned about and focused on was the exercise element. At first it made me feel good but then it made me feel just as bad as being depressed did. It was all a way to still try to escape from the negative things that I had going on in my life at that time.

  • Rachael

    March 25th, 2013 at 6:33 PM

    This is a brilliant article. I have struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my life and now that I live with ‘regular’ exercise walking and riding my bicycle I have found that life is much easier to live. It seemed to give me a confidence too, I fell like I can do anything, such positive thinking now. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ysabel@Physiotherapy Adelaide

    June 14th, 2013 at 11:49 PM

    I am a type of person who lacks exercise due to work schedule, however, I know that it’s beneficial for my body type as I need to really take care of my body and monitor my weight because I am not born thin like other women there. In order for me to shed off some pounds I need to really exercise and watch everything I eat. I love the feeling of getting into exercise thing as I look okay and it’s healthy not for my body but for mental state as well.

  • Tracy Brown RD,LD/N

    September 3rd, 2013 at 6:24 AM

    This article appropriately addresses that exercise won’t necessarily change body size but will do what it is meant to do: make us feel better.
    For those who are feeling hesitant about exercise, compassionately explore how come getting moving is a challenge. We can know joyful movement will be a good thing, yet not want to. Acknowledge this and curiously explore what feels good, not what you think you should do.

  • Depression Diet

    September 4th, 2013 at 9:12 AM

    Exercise produces neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells, in the hippocampus region of the brain responsible for memory, learning and mood.

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