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Depression: Can sports and exercise help?

Created: ; Last Update: January 12, 2017; Next update: 2019.

Sports and exercise can help to relieve the symptoms of depression. It is not clear whether particular forms of exercise are more suitable than others.

Depression can have any of a number of symptoms. The most common signs include feeling down for a long time, listlessness, not enjoying things, and generally not being interested in anything – even in hobbies and activities you used to enjoy. Various treatment options and support services are available for people who have depression. Psychotherapy and medication (antidepressants) are the two main building blocks of the treatment of depression.

Sports and exercise in depression

People who have depression are often listless, and end up not getting much physical exercise. Exercise and sports – like Nordic walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or hiking – are commonly recommended to relieve or prevent depression. Many people who do sports in addition to having other treatments say that it feels good to be able to do something to fight their depression themselves. Sports offer them the opportunity to be active and to meet other people. It is also thought that doing sports has a positive effect on the brain’s metabolism, and therefore also on the depression itself.

Research on sports and exercise for depression

Researchers from the Cochrane Collaboration – an international network of researchers – tested the benefits of sports and exercise for people with depression. They looked for any studies comparing the effect of sports and exercise programs with other treatments for depression. They found 39 studies involving nearly 2,330 people who took part in exercise programs. Most of the studies looked at the effects of jogging and Nordic walking, and a few looked at cycling and strength training. These programs ran for 1 to 16 weeks. All participants had been diagnosed with depression. Studies involving people with a depressive mood disorder or dysthymia (chronic depressive mood) were not included in the analysis.

Symptoms slightly milder

The researchers mainly wanted to find out whether participating in sports and exercise programs can relieve the symptoms of depression. Based on the results of the studies, they concluded that it has only a small effect. In other words, people who participated in exercise programs had, on average, somewhat fewer symptoms than people who did not participate and who also did not receive any other form of treatment. So the programs didn’t clearly relieve the symptoms. What’s more, many participants had dropped out of the programs early. This could be seen as a sign that the type of suggested exercise – usually jogging or Nordic walking – may not have been right for everyone.

There were hardly any studies comparing the different exercise programs with one another. For this reason it isn’t possible to say whether the type, intensity, or frequency of physical exercise make a difference. Some studies compared exercise programs with cognitive behavioral therapy or antidepressants. These studies didn’t find a clear difference compared with cognitive behavioral therapy or antidepressants. But this doesn’t mean that sports and exercise are generally as effective as psychological treatments and antidepressants, or that exercise can replace other forms of treatment. In many cases, psychological treatments and/or antidepressants are absolutely necessary. Sports and exercise may then be done in addition – or they may be an alternative option for people with mild depression who don’t want to start treatment right away.

Many questions remain unanswered

The review of these studies leaves many questions unanswered: Is the influence of sports and exercise different for mild, moderate and severe depression? Are sports and exercise more effective when done in groups or individually? How long does the effect last? Might it also sometimes be a bad idea to encourage someone to get more exercise? After all, it is hardly possible for people with severe depression to start becoming active in sports. This is easier for someone who has mild depression. The researchers didn’t look into whether different kinds of sports and exercise are more helpful in certain situations.


  • Cooney GM, Dwan K, Greig CA, Lawlor DA, Rimer J, Waugh FR et al. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013; (9): CD004366.
  • Kvam S, Kleppe CL, Nordhus IH, Hovland A. Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis. J Affect Disord 2016; 202: 67-86. [PubMed: 27253219]
  • Schuch FB, Vancampfort D, Rosenbaum S, Richards J, Ward PB, Stubbs B. Exercise improves physical and psychological quality of life in people with depression: A meta-analysis including the evaluation of control group response. Psychiatry Res 2016; 241: 47-54. [PubMed: 27155287]
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