Exercise and Depression

Exercise is more than just cardio

Moderate exercise is associated with lower rates of depression, longer life and reduced cognitive impairment in a number of recent studies.  Evidence is accumulating that exercise is for more than just cardio-vascular health, and confers significant benefits at all stages of life.

A 2019 observational study looked at exercise rates correlated with depression rates and found that those who exercised more had less risk of developing depression.  This result held even when controlled for genetic markers associated with depression risk.  That is, all those who had a high genetic risk for depression were more likely to develop depression, but among that group, those who exercised regularly were less depressed.

This result held for people who engaged in at least three hours per week of any activity, whether vigorous, like running or weight training, or more moderate, like walking or yoga classes.  The risk of depression was reduced by about 17% for each additional 30 minutes per week.1

More research

Other studies have shown that exercise has an effect on reducing anxiety, improving sleep quality, and longevity, so it’s hard to argue that any excuse is good enough not to get out and get the heart pumping again.  Studies have also looked into motivation, and have found that barriers to increased exercise can be overcome by the “fresh start effect” and also by starting small.   Instead of a regular exercise period, try the “three minute exercise break” method, especially for those who work at sedentary occupations: every half-hour, take three minutes to move and breathe. The three minute plan is helpful because it’s not hard to do, and practically anyone can incorporate it into their schedule.

Important points to keep in mind:

  • You don’t have to do something you don’t like.  Exercise can be any activity that moves your body: dancing, yoga, walking around the neighborhood or something more social like a class or group.
  • Moderate exercise is the key.  Three hours a week of an activity that gets your heart rate up is the standard recommendation.  You don’t have to become a workout freak to do enough exercise for your health.
  • Exercise also increases energy, so if you are too tired to exercise, the counter-intuitive answer is that if you get out and move around a bit, you will have more energy and feel less tired (of course, you can wear yourself out with exercise, too, but that’s not necessary for the health benefits).
  • If the exercise routine itself is too hard, you can bundle some fun stuff in with it.  Listen to an audiobook while walking, or do crazy dances with your kids, or exercise in front of the TV while your favorite program is on.  No need to make yourself unhappy while getting healthier!


  1. Choi, KW, Zheutlin, AB, Karlson, RA, et al. Physical activity offsets genetic risk for incident depression assessed via electronic health records in a biobank cohort study. Depress Anxiety. 2020; 37: 106– 114. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22967