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Exercise Treatment for Major Depression

It is estimated that in the United States in 2015, over 16 million adults experienced major depression. Depression can cause significant issues in daily life. While numerous treatments exist, one treatment that is gaining ground is exercise.

Certain types of exercises have been shown to have anti-depressive effects. The positive effects of aerobic exercise, specifically, have been studied extensively. The benefits of aerobic exercise are so vast that it is recommended that everyone get one hundred fifty minutes of exercise a week at a minimum. Besides improving the function of muscles, bones, and the heart, the brain can also be enhanced. Aerobic exercise causes the release of endorphins that can give a feeling of pleasure. Muscles also release chemicals which can improve neural plasticity, allowing for positive changes in the brain.

It is easy to say that if you have depression you should exercise. Saying something, having a plan, and implementing that plan are easier said than done. Numerous barriers exist for the average person including time, fatigue, access, and many others. People with major depression may have additional challenges and barriers to face.

Researchers studied a group of individuals with major depression who began exercise programs guided by a physical therapist. Researchers identified some common barriers to help give individuals a better picture of what the reality of implementing regular exercise would be. Hopefully, the follow themes can help people understand some common issues that may arise.

The common themes as people exercised to treat their depression included:

  1. Struggling Toward Your Healthy Self: ‘Taking back a lost active self’, ‘feeling like an outsider’, and the idea of ‘something rather than nothing’ were some barrier themes people had as they began to strive to become healthier. Choosing to exercise and to consume healthy nutrition do not come naturally to most people. The struggle, though, is often worth the benefits.
  2. Challenging the Resistance: ‘Challenging oneself’, ‘being pleased to power through’, and challenging the idea that ‘exercise is not for fun’ were positive themes that helped people as they persisted with exercise. Many good things in life do not come easy. Overcoming challenges can be very rewarding.
  3. Feeling Alive but not Euphoric: Everyone talks about these endorphins and wonderful feelings following exercise, but how is this experienced when having major depression? People experienced ‘less joy than expected’ but also felt that ‘the numb body awakens’ and felt ‘a different kind of tired’. Having realistic expectations with exercise early on can help avoid unnecessary disappointment.
  4. Needing Someone to be There for You: Building a support team around a person starting to exercise can be very influential. Some themes coming out of having a physical therapist supporting the exercise program included ‘someone to make it worthwhile’, ‘one is not purpose enough’, and the benefits of ‘Feeling part or apart’. The relational nature of mankind allows people to thrive with social support.

Creating a plan for an exercise program and a plan to develop social support can be a great place to start. Identifying potential barriers or problems can help create plans to overcome these issues. Once a good plan is set in place, you can begin to implement that plan. Once you start to implement the plan, the challenge will then become being persistent and maintaining the plan set in place. Do not get discouraged if you have any setbacks. These are normal and should not result in scrapping the entire plan.

Exercise can transform lives, but this does not happen overnight. Be patient, be persistent, be practical, and begin transforming your life to become the person that you aspire to be.


Exercise Treatment for Major Depression


Exercise Treatment for Major Depression





Louise Danielsson, Birgitta Kihlbom, Susanne Rosberg; “Crawling Out of the Cocoon”: Patients’ Experiences of a Physical Therapy Exercise Intervention in the Treatment of Major Depression. Phys Ther 2016; 96 (8): 1241-1250. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20150076

NIMH: Major Depression Among Adults, NIMH, Accessed 18 Apr. 2017.