How Each of These Workouts Reduce Symptoms of Depression

Hopping out of bed to do anything can feel impossible, let alone a morning jog or early exercise class and a fresh start to your day. 

Most people who have struggled through depression know living an active lifestyle can easily become an elusive thing. Ironically, working out is a great way to lift you up during depression, but perhaps one of the most challenging symptoms of the illness is that it can easily take away your desire to do so in the first place. Hopping out of bed to do anything can feel impossible, let alone a morning jog or early exercise class and a fresh start to your day. 


According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, at least 16.1 million American adults are affected by depression each year, and a growing body of research shows that exercise is just one thing that can contribute to helping a diagnosed depressed person start to feel better. It’s no cure, but it is an effective form of therapy, reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic disorders. How does it work? Well, there’s no proven and exact understanding of exactly how exercise effectively battles depression but our explanation of it often starts with the release of endorphins. These are the hormones that lift your mood and create a better sense of well-being and even confidence. It increases the availability of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are essential neurotransmitters that are often diminished by depressive symptoms. On a biological level, getting your heart rate going raises your body temperature, which actually reduces muscular tension and may simply help you feel relaxed physically. But mentally and emotionally, the results of all this are often a boost to self-efficacy — a belief in yourself and what you can accomplish. Suddenly, popping out of bed seems a little easier day after day. 


So, what kind of exercise accomplishes all of this? According to a review earlier this year that analyzed 33 randomized clinical trials, resistance training — more commonly referred to as but not limited to generic weightlifting — significantly reduces depressive symptoms among adults. Another study which focused on aerobic exercise’s impact on depression found that just 30 minutes of cardio three days a week suppressed symptoms of depression just as well as prescribed antidepressants. So the truth is, any exercise is going to have potentially dramatic positive effects on depression symptoms. But if you’re looking for a starting point or at least want to come up with the most effective plan possible, these exercises are considered some of the best at boosting your mood: 


Resistance Training 

As mentioned, a previous study discovered that men who lifted weights for 14 weeks had not only enhanced their physical strength but also their neural drive, the ability to send electrical signals from brain to muscle. Resistance training has been found to decrease anxiety, boost memory and cognition, and reduce fatigue. Essentially, resistance training strengthens your brain as much as it does your body.



Running is the most basic and straightforward form of cardio possible. Lace up your shoes (or even go barefoot) and set out putting one foot in front of the other. The beauty of it for any person, no matter the fitness goals or athletic ability, is that you can go at your own pace and easily track progress. 


Perhaps no part of running sums up its impact on a person both physically and emotionally more than the term “runner’s high,” which can also give us some insight into its effect on depression symptoms. Researchers have recently found that the ability to get “high” while is a response that’s ingrained in our DNA. David A. Raichlen, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona explains that mankind’s survival was at one time dependent on the ability to chase down its food, and the reward for not giving up under physically grueling circumstances was in sustaining oneself. So feeling an actual high was an evolutionary reward, triggering whatever response was necessary for a person to catch a meal. Runner’s high was a natural painkiller used to mask pain, tired legs, heavy breathing, and sore feet in the name of survival.  


"Psychologically, runners may experience euphoria, a feeling of being invincible, a reduced state of discomfort or pain, and even a loss in sense of time while running," says Jesse Pittsley, Ph.D., president of the American Society for Exercise Physiologists. It’s a state that allows these athletes to not only grit their way through 26.2 mile marathons, but to kick it all into an extra gear as if physical exhaustion isn’t even a possibility. Just as interesting, runner’s high is actually something that takes over usually after a runner has started to fatigue and slow down.



Hight Intensity Interval Training, also known as HIIT, is exactly what it sounds like. Possibly the most grueling “genre” of exercise today, it requires short, intense bursts of strenuous activity broken up by short, intermittent breaks for rest. 


How is it so effective in tackling depression? It combines both resistance training benefits as well as endurance training benefits, which includes boosting brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a powerful protein that speeds up learning, increases memory, protects your brain from damage, and promotes neurogenesis.



According to Harvard Health, yoga “can reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses and may be helpful for both anxiety and depression.” 


“By reducing perceived stress and anxiety, yoga appears to modulate stress response systems,” they wrote in 2018. “This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal — for example, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration. There is also evidence that yoga practices help increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body's ability to respond to stress more flexible.” 


“Yoga has become increasingly popular in the West, and many new yoga practitioners cite stress-reduction and other mental health concerns as their primary reason for practicing,” said Lindsey Hopkins, Ph.D., of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who chaired a session highlighting research on yoga and depression. “But the empirical research on yoga lags behind its popularity as a first-line approach to mental health.” 

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