Exercise Can Improve Symptoms of Depression

By Lauren DeSouza- Master of Public Health, Simon Fraser Public Research University – Canada
Staff Research and Content Writer
© Copyright – SUD RECOVERY CENTERS – A Division of Genesis Behavioral Services, Inc.,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin – June 2022 – All rights reserved.

Exercise is a well-known mood booster and can help reduce your risk of depression. 

New evidence is showing that exercise can also directly improve several symptoms of depression. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise (e.g. walking, bike riding, even gardening) improves depressed mood and boosts cognitive function. These positive effects lasted for over an hour.

What are the benefits of exercise for depression?

Researchers tested the effects of exercise on three common characteristics of depression: 

  • Depressed mood (e.g., feeling sad, discouraged, or gloomy)
  • Anhedonia, a common symptom of depression where someone finds it difficult to experience pleasure. 
  • decreased cognitive function (e.g., difficulty thinking or concentrating).

When participants exercised for 30 minutes, they found that their mood improved, they were thinking more positively, they were able to experience pleasure, and they had more mental clarity.

Image from Liliana Drew on Pexels

Since these benefits last for over an hour, the researchers suggest that exercising can make it easier to do things that are emotionally or cognitively challenging, such as major life or work events. For example, the benefits of exercise on focus and mental clarity may be beneficial before giving a presentation at work, and positive thinking would be helpful before giving a speech at a wedding. 

The improved mental state caused by exercise may also be beneficial before going to therapy. In a separate study, participants who exercised before going to therapy saw more progress with therapy and further reductions in their depressive symptoms. The researchers suggest that exercise may open the mind and make someone feel more ready to engage with the more emotionally challenging work that can happen during therapy. Improved clarity and positive thinking may also make someone more likely to stick with therapy for a longer period of time.

What kinds of exercise have these benefits?

Moderate-intensity exercise is movement that raises your heart rate 50-60% above its normal level. It can include things like jogging, biking, walking or swimming, as well as activities you may not consider “exercise” such as gardening, raking leaves, or washing your car. 

Image from Samson Katt on Pexels

In order to tell if you’re in the moderate intensity zone, use the talk test. You should be able to carry on a conversation while exercising without gasping for breath.  Speaking may take a bit more effort than usual, but you should be able to hold a conversation.

These two studies suggest that 30 minutes of moderate exercise can induce improvements to these symptoms of depression.

Key Takeaways

Exercising for just 30 minutes can improve your mood, focus, and ability to feel joy. These benefits may help you in challenging or important situations at work, in your personal life, or even in therapy. Try walking, biking, or gardening for 30 minutes and see what benefits you feel.


Cleveland Clinic. What Does Moderate Exercise Mean, Anyway? October 23, 2020. Accessed from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-does-moderate-exercise-mean-anyway/ 

Jacob D. Meyer, Thomas A. Murray, Cassandra S. Brower, Gabriel A. Cruz-Maldonado, Maria L. Perez, Laura D. Ellingson, Nathaniel G. Wade. Magnitude, timing and duration of mood state and cognitive effects of acute moderate exercise in major depressive disorder. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 2022; 61: 102172 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2022.102172

Jacob D. Meyer, Seana L. Perkins, Cassandra S. Brower, Jeni Lansing, Julia A. Slocum, Emily B. Kroska, Thomas A. Murray, Duck-Chul Lee and Nathaniel G. Wade. Feasibility of an exercise and CBT intervention for treatment of depression: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2022 (provisionally accepted) [abstract]