Exercise as a Treatment for Depression

Watch the video instead on ‘exercise vs. drugs for depression’.

We’ve known for decades that even a single bout of exercise can elevate our mood, but could it be enough to be used as a treatment for major depression?

We’ve known that physical activity has been associated with decreased symptoms of depression. For example, if you look at a cross-section of 8,000 people across the country, those that exercised regularly were less likely to have a major depression diagnosis. That’s just a snapshot in time, though. In that study, the researcher openly acknowledges this may be a case of reverse causation. Maybe exercise didn’t cut down on depression, maybe depression cut down on exercise. The reason depression may be associated with low physical activity is that people may feel too lousy to get out of bed. What we’ve needed was an interventional study where you take people who are already depressed and randomize them into an exercise intervention.

That is what researchers from Duke University Medical Center did. They randomized men and women over age 50 with major depression to two groups: one who did an aerobic exercise program for four months and another that took an antidepressant drug called Zoloft. In my video Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression, you can see a graph of their changes. Before exercise, their Hamilton Depression scores were up around 18 (anything over seven is considered depressed). Within four months, the drug group came down to normal, which is exactly what the drugs are supposed to do. What about the exercise-only group, though? Exercise had the same powerful effect.

The researchers concluded that an exercise training program may be considered an alternative to antidepressants for treatment of depression in older persons, given that they’ve shown that a group program of aerobic exercise is a feasible and effective treatment for depression, at least for older people.

Not so fast, though.

A “group program?” They had the exercise group folks come in three times a week for a group class. Maybe the only reason the exercise group got better is because they were forced to get out of bed and interact with people—maybe it was the social stimulation and had nothing to do with the actual exercise? Before you could definitively say that exercise can work as well as drugs, what we would need to see is the same study, but with an additional group who exercised alone with no extra social interaction. And those same Duke researchers did just that.

They created the largest exercise trial of patients with major depression conducted to date, and not just including older folks, but other adults as well with three different treatment groups this time: a home exercise group in addition to the supervised group exercise and the drug group as before.

And, they all worked about just as well in terms of forcing the depression into remission. So, we can say with confidence that exercise is comparable to antidepressant medication in the treatment of patients with major depressive disorder.

Putting all the best studies together, researchers indicate that exercise at least has a moderate antidepressant effect, and at best, exercise has a large effect on reductions in depression symptoms and could be categorized as a very useful and powerful intervention. Unfortunately, while studies support the use of exercise as a treatment for depression, exercise is rarely prescribed as a treatment for this common and debilitating problem.


How Researchers Are Implementing Food To Treat Depression And Other Chronic Diseases

Ah, comfort food. Who doesn’t have a love/hate relationship with it? For me on a bad day, I find myself craving the perfect storm of fries, pizza, and ice cream. What I don’t realize as I’m dipping my fry into my ice cream is that I might experience an emotional low afterward that’s even worse than how I felt at the beginning. Actually, I’ve noticed that when I have fresh fruits and vegetables, I’m much more vibrant and happy and ready to accomplish the tasks throughout my day.

 That brings up the question: Can the food we eat have a drastic impact on our emotional health? More specifically, can a plant-based, vegan diet reverse symptoms of depression and improve emotional health?

There have been many studies done regarding the influence of diet on emotional health. For example, in January 2017, an issue of the medical journal BioMed Central (BMC) Medicine reported that a team of researchers led by Felice Jacka, an epidemiologist at Deakin University in Australia, studied the effect that diet had on the moods of individuals with major depression. The study had two groups: the initial group received counseling from a dietician and the second group received counseling from a positive social support caregiver.

The results indicated that those who ate a healthy diet were emotionally happier than those who received social support. Also shown was that an unhealthy diet high in processed and refined foods increased the risk for not only depression but other diseases as well. There have been many other studies revolving around this topic that support this research.

Nutritional psychiatry

“Nutritional psychiatry” is a recent development in the medical world, but it’s a rapidly growing research field. Understanding the effects that diet has on mental health is incredibly important – especially now – because there are so many chronic diseases that have become more prevalent because of the highly processed foods consumed by society.

Dr. Jacka is the co-founder of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research that aims to expand the field by using a multi-disciplinary approach to research connecting emotional and physical health on a new level. The Food and Mood Center was created by Dr. Jacka as a center for studies on how diet influences mental health. Because of the new studies that have been addressed, the American Psychiatric Association has begun to include presentations on nutritional psychiatry at their annual conferences.

Even though diet isn’t the only factor influencing mental health, researchers have found another way to prevent and treat depression. What is it? You guessed it, eating a plant-based diet. A plant-based diet doesn’t only promote good physical health, but it also shows promise in promoting emotional health and well-being. I think we can safely say that fruits and veggies should be the “happy food” to turn to when we’re having a bad day.

Here’s a recipe for a fruit smoothie from Nutriliving that is packed with fresh nutrition and will give you a bright boost to your day. Have a happy and healthy day!

Mood-Boosting Breakfast Blast 


  • ¼ cup blueberries
  • 1 banana
  • 5 walnuts
  • ½ cup oats
  • 1 ½ cups unsweetened almond milk


  • Add all ingredients to your blender and blend for 30 seconds, or until smooth.
  • Enjoy!

By Raeann Leal