How Exercise Affects Depression

depression dark fog


Out of the 7.6 billion people in the world, an estimated 350 million suffer from depression according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This is about 5%. This number is even higher in younger adults and adolescents.

Read this article for more information.

With so many people struggling to stay positive in a world filled with so much negativity, battling depression can sometimes feel like climbing Mount Everest. Often times it doesn’t help when our society has a tendency to look down on those struggling with it.

Since depression is a clinical mood disorder and not merely something that can be “fixed” on your own, what can you do about it? Is there anything you should even try to do?

The overwhelming answer is yes and YES.

Coming from someone who’s battled negativity and undiagnosed depression from time to time, one of the number one things that has help me overcome the barrier was exercise. Even though there were many times I failed to have enough motivation to exercise, the times I did help me in ways I never realized.

What it Does Scientifically

sitting on a beach


When you exercise, several changes take place in your brain. First of all, oxygen flow increases. This, in turn, stimulates new connections between neurons. Ever heard of exercise boosting memory? It’s true. You see, with increased oxygen flow, your brain is able to function more optimally. The results of this are huge. Just take a look.

  • Improves cognition
  • Strengthens short and long term memory
  • Balances hormones (improving mood)
  • Strengthens your learning capacity
  • Boosts circulation
  • Strengthens your will power
  • Reduces disease risk


These are just a few results, but there are so many other processes affected simply by exercising each day. If you’ve ever heard of endorphins, dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and serotonin – these are the hormones and neurotransmitters that all work together to improve your mood during exercise.

Read Health Benefits of Cardio to learn why cardio is essential to get the most benefit out of your workout.

The Feel-Good Process
  1. Your HR elevates during exercise, improving oxygen flow to the brain
  2. Your brain releases chemicals (neurotransmitters) including endorphins that activate the reward center of your brain
  3. These endorphins combined with epinephrine and norepinephrine (your body’s stress response) clear your mind and make you feel relaxed and happy


For more info on how this process works, check out What Happens to Our Brains When We Exercise and How it Makes Us Happier


It Sharpens Your Mind

When you’re depressed, your brain is caught in a detrimental loop of chronic exposure to the hormone, cortisol. In response to stress, your body releases cortisol as a way of coping. It also helps to regulate metabolism and blood sugar levels.

Initially, this doesn’t sound that bad. Over extended periods of exposure to cortisol, however, other connections of the brain are slowed and weakened. In addition to interfering with your daily activities, this can even lead to lapses and problems with your memory.

Having the self-discipline and willpower to exercise can break that detrimental loop. It sends a burst of endorphins through your brain that acts similarly to a reset button.

“Your brain is no different than rest of the muscles in your body — you either use it or you lose it”

This statement from Physical Exercise for Brain Health couldn’t be more true. This is especially important to someone who’s battling depression. All the benefits of exercising specifically help to break down the detrimental imbalances and neural connections that have formed.


It Awakens Your Muscles

exercise effects on depression

In addition to sharpening your mind, exercise also awakens your muscles. For someone battling depression, this affects so many involuntary processes that will also benefit you.

You see, even though our bodies are comprised of separate systems, they all work together (and are constantly affecting one another). If your heart is pumping out more oxygen, your musculoskeletal system is going to work more efficiently. This, in turn, improves your skeletal and nervous systems. Why? Because they all work together to create movement.

The same thing happens to the other systems of the body as well. Take the digestive system for instance. If you eat clean and drink water throughout the day, your renal, integumentary and lymphatic system are all going to benefit. Why? Because the foods you eat directly impact the amount of fluid/fat absorbed and the amount of (and type of) waste dispelled from your body.

You get me?

Now you’re probably rolling your eyes at this point. Sure, exercise is good for many things – including fighting depression – however there’s one problem that I haven’t yet discussed. It’s the fact that if you’re depressed, exercising is at the bottom of your to-do list. It’s the last thing you’d want to do.

If you’ve experienced any kind of depression or persistent negative thoughts in the past, you know what I mean.

One Slight Problem…

Not too long ago, I struggled with this. After moving back to Alabama from Cali due to a chronic knee injury, my outlook on life wasn’t that great. Not only could I not work, but I could barely walk around the apartment without experiencing sharp pain in my knees.

After about a month of this and seeing minimal progress, my mood had drastically changed. Even though there were plenty of things I could still do while being sedentary (reading, writing, drawing, playing the piano, etc.), I began to lose interest in all those activities. My viewpoint became very pessimistic. I didn’t even want to exercise my upper body. I just didn’t feel like doing anything. I mean, what was the point if I couldn’t walk or get around anyway?

Throughout this time, my husband did an outstanding job of trying to boost my spirits. However, a majority of the time I’d still catch myself trapped in a dark fog. Was I aware that exercising would help my mood? Of course. But did that make me want to get up and do it? Heck no.

My point of telling you this is because most of the time the problem doesn’t lie in not knowing if exercise will help. The problem lies in taking action.

Now I’m not saying that people who are depressed passively allow detrimental things to happen to themselves. On the contrary, they – out of all people – desperately want to feel better! However, stressful life situations, a chemical imbalance or a difficulty in regulating mood changes can make this extremely difficult.


Tips to Boost Willpower and Break the Mental Fog

fight against depression teamwork

There have been a few things that I’ve found helpful for times when I’m feeling down. In sharing these with you, I also want you to realize that sometimes the best option overall is to find help. Whether this is through a counselor, a doctor or some other person specifically trained to help fight depression, I would encourage you to take action.

These tips are great to incorporate into your daily habits, however if you find yourself feeling continually negative, disinterested or angry over time, reach out to a friend or someone else you trust. If not for yourself, do it for someone who loves and cares about you. No matter what, always remember that by helping yourself you are also helping those around you.

Exercise in Ways that YOU Perceive Beneficial or Enjoyable

What I mean by this is to do an activity that you want to do. If you’re feeling frustrated or angry, spend 30 minutes boxing the snot out of a punching bag. If you’re feeling lonely, then reach out and find a workout buddy. If you’re seeking mental clarity then try sticking in some headphones and going out for a run or swim.

Read Best Headphones for Swimming – My Top Picks

Whatever the case may be, find a way to exercise that channels your specific needs. If you catch the winter time blues (seasonal affective disorder/SAD) then exercising outdoors may prove very beneficial. Even if it’s cloudy, your body will still absorb vitamin D. Research has also shown that spending more time outdoors will boost mental clarity, focus, mood, creativity and even healing as well.

Set Timers

I know for me, battling negative thoughts over time can create the overwhelming temptation to find distraction through social media. This is not good, as it merely wastes time and potentially causes more unhappiness.

When this happens, the first thing I do (besides recognizing that I’ve been spending too much time on “X”) is to grab a timer. Whether this is a timer on my phone, laptop, Google Home or other device, I set it for 30-60 minutes (depending on the activity I’m doing). During that time I start working on one thing – and only one thing – until the timer runs out.

The benefits behind doing this carry over into other aspects of your life. Not only do you boost productivity, but you may also boost your mood. For me, I find that I feel even worse about myself if I waste hours and hours on social media. Not only does it accomplish nothing, but it also gives me a headache from looking at a screen for too long.

The bottom line? Try setting timers more often. Even if you only do it for a couple items on your checklist a day, you will start to see a boost in productivity. This help me a bunch.

Break a Barrier

This may sound extremely difficult, but another tip I found helpful in battling depression was to break a barrier of some kind. Even if you don’t feel like doing it in the moment. This could mean:

  • Changing your scenery
  • Going someplace new
  • Trying a new potential hobby
  • Talking to a stranger
  • Driving a different route than usual
  • Getting up earlier or vise versa


The whole goal of this is to incorporate something new into your life – to help break up whatever is keeping you stuck in a rut. There have been days when I’ve sat on the couch all day and didn’t want to go outside. However when I’ve forced myself to go outside (even during the winter months) it helped refocus my thoughts.

Another example are times when I’ve not wanted to talk or interact with anyone. It’s times like these that I force myself to either text, Snapchat or call someone. In the moment, do I feel like being social? No. However, looking back on all the times I’ve forced myself to reach out, I don’t regret a single one.


Because as human beings we are social in nature. We were never made to be alone. Even if you don’t feel like talking to anyone, try to reach out to just one other person. Set a timer if you have to!

Because no matter what, people are there for other people. One of our greatest goals, in my opinion, is to encourage and lift others up. All you have to do is find one person to help you in that.


Conclusion – How Exercise Affects Depression

woman looking back smiling

To sum everything up, depression is one nasty mental disorder. Even though it’s not something that you can just “fix” by flipping a switch, there are several things you can do to help fight it. This is why taking action is so pivotal to overcoming it.

Does exercise help fight depression? Absolutely. It’s something that I would encourage you to do daily. Also, finding ways to exercise that are beneficial and enjoyable for you are also just as important.

As always, I welcome anyone to reach out and contact me with questions, comments or even if you want to be added to my daily prayer list. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, however want to encourage and uplift others in any way possible.


Sending much love,

Sarah Gaddes