Even a little exercise can help with depression

Getting even half of the recommended two and half hours of physical activity a week can be great for mental health.

Maija Kappler 4 minute read April 28, 2022
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Exercise releases endorphins, which can provide a sense of happiness or well-being as well as relieving (some) physical pain. GETTY

Exercise can have such a positive effect on mental health that getting even half the recommended amount can prevent or help alleviate symptoms of depression, according to new research.

The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, analyzed data from 15 previous studies, looking at more than 190,000 adults, whose mood and level of physical activity were tracked for more than three years.

The researchers found that people who got the recommended two and a half hours of “brisk walking” per week had a 25 per cent lower risk of depression. But even people who exercised just half of that time — for one hour and 15 minutes a week — lowered their risk of depression by 18 per cent compared with people who got no physical activity. “Even small volumes of activity were beneficial” for mental health, the study authors said. “Mental health benefits can be achieved at physical activity levels even below the public health recommendations.”

The most significant difference in depression risk was between people who didn’t exercise and people who exercised at least a little bit: “most benefits are realized when moving from no activity to at least some,” according to the authors. There wasn’t a significant change between people who got the recommended two and a half hours a week of exercise and people who got more than that.

Why exercise is good for mental health

Exercise releases endorphins, which can provide a sense of happiness or well-being as well as relieving (some) physical pain. We release endorphins when we laugh, fall in love, have sex, or eat good food, according to Harvard Health. Exercise also releases serotonin and dopamine, which boost both our mood and our brain health.

The researchers also suggested that behavioural explanations are possible for the connection between exercise and good mental health: people who exercise regularly may have a better physical self-image and more healthy coping mechanisms than people who don’t, they say.

The limitations of this kind of study

Of course, the nature of depression can make it hard to do the simple things that could help alleviate depression symptoms — many people who are depressed often find it very difficult to exercise, eat nutritious food, or get enough sleep. Depression can be a motivation killer, and often leaves people feeling tired, which can make exercise feel out of reach. A 2017 study of patients at a mental health clinic found that almost everyone who responded (84 per cent) said they knew exercise made them feel better. But more than half of respondents (52 per cent) said that their mood “limited their involvement” in physical activity.

“I go through days when working out simply isn’t in reach,” writer Beth McColl said in an essay for Self. “I’m too fatigued and feeling too hopeless to do so much as open a curtain. Feelings of lethargy are common in people with mood disorders, and exercising when you’re feeling that low-energy can be as close to impossible as it gets.”

But McColl was able to enjoy exercise again once she gave herself permission to do as little as she wanted, she said: “When I first began exercising regularly again, I committed to just 10 or 15 minutes a day and built on that,” she wrote. “Now, if I ever feel the urge to push harder or compete with previous workouts, I remind myself that I’m not training for anything.”

When an intense workout seems daunting, it can be helpful to start small, several mental health experts and people living with depression told HuffPost in 2019: going for a walk, exercising at home, or setting a short, achievable goal are all helpful ways of starting to integrate a little bit of exercise into your day.

If you’re thinking about suicide or are worried about a friend or loved one, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1.833.456.4566 toll free or connect via text at 45645, from 4 p.m. to midnight ET.

Maija Kappler is a reporter and editor at Healthing. You can reach her at mkappler@postmedia.com
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