Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

The Power of Exercise to Fight Depression


While we know of the physical and psychological benefits for people in general, we have less insight regarding the effects of exercise on those with depression.

Iowa State University (USA) researchers set out to see if exercise improved depression symptoms in the short term. Today, we look at the prevalence of depression in the general population before turning to the positive results from the new studies.

Depression prevalence

Syndromes of depression are pretty prevalent among adults worldwide. An examination of 21 countries discovered a 12-month prevalence of unipolar depression to be five percent.

The lifetime prevalence of depression is about 12 percent, according to surveys from 14 countries. There appears to be a striking difference in the incidence of depression when we stratify it by income:

  • In developed countries (for example, the United States and Europe), the lifetime prevalence of depression is about 18 percent.
  • In developing countries (for example, China, Mexico, and Brazil), the lifetime prevalence of depression is nine percent.

The significant differences in depression risk may be secondary to sampling errors, challenges with applying diagnostic criteria in all locations, or genetic and cultural factors.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Depression risk factors

Several factors are associated with an individual having a higher chance of suffering from depression. Here are some of them:

Depression and exercise

For the study, researchers recruited 30 adults experiencing major depressive episodes.

The subjects completed electronic surveys about depression symptoms before, in the middle, and after 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling. The participants also completed surveys afterward at the 25-, 50-, and 75-minute marks.

The subjects returned a week later. Those who had cycled during the first lab visit repeated the activity, but only after sitting for 30 minutes first. The other group reversed the exercise and rest order.

Photo by Intenza Fitness on Unsplash

Depression symptoms better for up to 75 minutes

The surveys examined changes in three main features of depression, including depressed mood state, challenges experiencing pleasure from activities previously enjoyed (anhedonia), and decreased cognitive function.

Here are the findings:

During the cycling experiment, participants’ depressed mood state improved over the 30 minutes of exercise and up to 75 minutes afterward.

In terms of the ability to feel pleasure, the benefits of exercise began to wear off after about 75 minutes. Still, the exercise group scored better on this measure than the non-exercisers.

A single session can improve a depressed mood for at least 75 minutes, with drops in anhedonia (not experiencing pleasure) not lasting as long.

Cognitive behavior therapy

After the eight-week program, both groups showed improvement. Those who did an exercise program before cognitive behavior therapy had the most impressive drop in depressive symptoms.

Participants who exercised also reported a quicker, more robust connection with their therapists. The study authors suggest that exercise may prime the brain to engage in more emotionally challenging work with a therapist.

Thank you for joining me. If you have symptoms of depression, please let your health care provider know right away.


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Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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