Depression: Exercise as a Treatment Option

by Kaitelynn T.

Depression is one of the most prevalent mental illnesses in Canada. Through a community survey the Public Health Agency of Canada determined that 11.3% of adults living in Canada identified symptoms that meet the criteria for depression. With such a high rate of the population being affected researchers have become increasingly interested in finding new and alternative treatments to treat or assist in treating the symptoms of depression. One of the new ways to treat depression that researchers are exploring is exercise.

Although never diagnosed with depression, I along with everyone else, have experienced a range of high and low days. Once I started university I found that the lows were becoming more frequent. In high school I always had a sport to play and therefore exercised on a daily basis. However, once in university I had little to no exercise and didn’t participate in intramural sports. About halfway through my first year I decided to try going for a run and found an immediate improvement in my mood. It became a habit to go for a run a couple times a week and I found that the lows were not so frequent anymore. Even on my bad days going for a run was a way to focus solely on breathing and moving my legs. Looking back on this I decided to look into what research had been done on the topic of exercise as a treatment option for depression. I found many articles where the data indicated that exercise did indeed have a positive effect on the symptoms of depression.

The first article I examined was, Exercise as a Treatment Option for Depression: A Meta-analysis Adjusting for Publication Bias, by Schuch et al. This article states that “Our data strongly support the claim that that exercise is an evidence based treatment for depression”. This article does specify that some types of exercise are more effective than other. For example it found that moderate aerobic activities led by a professional appeared to have a larger positive impact on individuals than other types of self-led exercise. Another article I looked at was, Exercise as a Treatment for Depression in Elders, by Carol Palmer. This study reports “Increasing physical activity markedly reduces depressive symptoms and is a safe adjunct or alternative to medication therapy”. This study goes on to state that “Physical activity should be recommended to patients of all ages”. These studies show that exercise can greatly reduce depressive symptoms and creates an alternative treatment option for those struggling with depression. It is important for people to try a range of treatments in order to find an option that is best suited for the individual. As stated by Palmer exercise can be used along with other treatments for depression.

The point of this blog is not to tell people that exercise will cure your depression or that people on medication for depression should stop taking it and simply exercise. The point of this blog is to help make people aware that exercise has a huge impact on our mental wellness and should be reinforced as an important part of staying healthy not just physically but mentally as well.


Pearson, Caryn, Teresa Janz and Jennifer Ali. 2013. “Mental and substance use disorders in Canada” Health at a Glance. September. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-624-X.

Schuch, F. B., Vancampfort, D., Richards, J., Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P. B., & Stubbs, B. (June 01, 2016). Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 77, 42-51.

Palmer, C. (February 01, 2005). Exercise as a treatment for depression in elders. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 17, 2, 60-66.



6 responses

  1. Great post Kaitelynn, I definitely agree with what you’re saying!
    I’ve also had that “funk” of lows while in university, much like everyone else. After coming from playing sports and being physically active almost everyday, to not playing any intramural sports and becoming pretty sedentary, I experienced a similar situation to what you’re describing! Much like you said, running began to give me that release and clarity. I HATE RUNNING, but I love how I feel after running, so the pros outweigh the cons. I think it is really important to not only recognize the physical benefits of staying healthy and exercising regularly, but also the mental. With mental health becoming such a hot topic, and the work being done to eliminate the stigma around it, exercise should be recommended first and foremost. I feel like a lot of people write off running or exercise as “not for them”, but if they look into it, like you have, they will see that anything is better than nothing, and that you don’t run a marathon right off the bat. We as kin students obviously recognize all of the great benefits, but some one off the street might not. Promoting exercise as a coping mechanism for depression, and other mental health issues could become the most effective for certain individuals, and some may find that in addition to their medication it helps. Being mentally well is just as important as being physically well, and with so many people suffering from depression as you’ve said, this is a great point to bring up.

    Paige H

  2. I totally agree with you Kaitelynn, great post!
    Exercise comes with an extensive list of health benefits that we’ve learned all about throughout our degrees here at UNB, but I feel the majority of the focus is around the physical health benefits and not as much emphasis is placed on the mental health aspect. So it’s great you’ve highlighted this in your blog post.
    I think creating and maintaining exercise habits throughout your life will assure that you get these benefits, but I feel that it is important to note that a balance needs to exist within your life in order for you to achieve these benefits. I am currently following a very strict diet and exercise plan and sometimes the amount of time I spend in the gym, the meals I have to eat at certain times of the day, and time it’s taken from my social life, has in a way negatively impacted my mental health. I am a strong believer in striking a balance when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle and being able to enjoy life without feeling the guilt of eating something “I am not supposed to” or missing a session at the gym.

  3. Kaitelynn, I want to congratulate you on doing a wonderful job on your article. Finding healthy ways to manage depression and other mental health issues is a big issue. I agree that exercise is a useful component of managing depression, and that it is not encouraged enough by doctors and mental health professionals as a part of their treatment plan.

    Unfortunately with depression there is often a lack of motivation and simply a lack of energy. This makes it very difficult for depressed people to get the exercise that will help, we know that exercise will help and that regular exercise will increase people’s energy levels. Yet I know from my own history with having major depressive disorder I struggle a lot with insomnia and being exhausted constantly, when I am only getting three hours of sleep in a night I can barely manage to get up in the morning let along try to find the motivation and energy to exercise.

    When everything feels very overwhelming and when everything feels like it is beyond your capability exercise seems like an impossible task. And I feel like this adds to why more people don’t use exercise as a way of managing depression. Already very few people meet the Canadian guidelines of physical activity in Canada so trying to get these people who were not already exercising when they are depressed is a big challenge.

  4. Great post Kaitelynn,
    Going from high school to university has defiantly taken a tole on my mental health. In high school, I was involved in 4 different sport teams, which allowed me to always be physically active. Now being in university I don’t have time to be committed to a team. First year of university I tried intramurals but realized that between midterms, assignments, and papers I could not be committed. Eventually I started going to the gym, and now I go to the gym 4 to 5 times a week. The result of going to the gym has improved my mental health significantly. Even on the days that I’m really stressed about a midterm or an assignment I try my hardest to go to the gym. Every time I return home from the gym I feel recharged, confident, and ready to concur the world. In the end, it helps me concentrate on my homework.
    Physical activity is now being prescribed to patients instead of medication. I think this is an amazing idea. By doing so it will help individuals become physically fit and healthy while also being mentally healthy. Improving in these two areas will create healthy communities and hopefully diminish the percentage of people that are suffering physically and mentally.
    -Taylor. H

  5. Great post! I have experienced how physical activity can increase mental health. Running is all I need when I’m having a bad day. I read in a previous study how physical activity can release endorphins in turn making physical activity addictive. I believe that living a healthy lifestyle also takes other pressure off of oneself such as poor health related issues and extra donor appointments because of this. As one of the previous commenters mentioned that with depression comes a lack of motivation which could be a constraint for participation in physical activity. Support systems which encourage physical active and a healthy lifestyle may be a good place to start when dealing with depression.

    Ben A.

  6. I think the real question should be why does physical activity help depression? Im not a college grad but i like to think its from the thought of self accomplishment, that your brains way of saying hey get out there and do somthing stop being lazy. Not that some people dont have it worse than others im sure theres cases. I work at a auto body shop every weekday and when im not finishing things in a timely manner or im not seeing progress it can almost be depressing. I like your thinking out side the box on this though just my $0.02

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