As someone who works in mental health and cultivated an exercise habit a few years ago, I found the top search results about exercise and depression quite shallow. I decided to study the research myself, and I was quite astonished at how effective exercise actually is for depression, which I talk about below. I also share a method for getting into exercise to help you combat depression, based on my personal experience, which I’m excited about. Let's get into it.
Exercise Is Amazing For Depression
I'll be straightforward - exercise is probably the single best thing you can do for depression. And I'm saying that as someone who works at a therapy startup. Across dozens of studies with several hundreds of participants, exercise has been shown to have an effect size (ES) of 0.98 (an ES of 0.8 is high - the ES of aspirin on reducing the risk of heart attacks, a well-known piece of advice, is 0.12). Exercise has a much bigger impact than even antidepressant medications (ES = 0.38) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (ES = 0.71).
You may be skeptical exercise will help for you in particular. However, the effectiveness of exercise on depression has been shown in a variety of situations. Most important, even just a little helps. People who walked or jogged for 30 minutes 3 times a week saw significant improvement in symptoms. Aerobic exercise was the most beneficial, but every kind was effective - so if you lift, keep it up. Also, exercise doesn’t just help in milder cases - those with more severe depression actually benefited more from exercise. Exercise was effective for all genders, and people with ages ranging from 18 to 71 participated in these studies.
The bottom line is, even a little exercise is one of the most powerful things one can do for depression, no matter what your situation. Honestly, it feels a bit weird not having to say much about a topic, but it's just that simple.
But how do you make exercise a part of your life? Below, I'll lay out a straightforward and reliable formula to make running a habit - even if you've tried and failed before. This is based on the advice of others who have successfully gotten into running, as well as my personal experience.
Don't Try Hard
Before, however, I want to caution you: don't try hard. Don't go out and try to run a 5k today.
The way to make something, such as running, reading, or meditating, a part of your life, is to get into the habit of starting. We all behave on autopilot - far, far more than we'd like to think. So if we develop the habit of starting a desirable behavior - e.g. just putting on running shoes - we'll eventually automatically follow through with the behavior - going for a long run.
The key to cultivating a habit is daily consistency over an extended period of time. If you try to do a lot from the beginning, you’ll quickly give up - I guarantee. Chances are, you probably can't run a 5k every day for 30 days right now. I couldn't when I started running. And without that daily consistency for an extended period of time, you’ll never develop the habit of starting. But if you focus on just starting, one day your body will start pushing you by itself - trust me. It’s amazing.
With all that out of the way, here's the formula to make exercise a part of your life:
For the first 30 days, focus only on the act of putting on your running shoes.
Do this every single day.
Do this at about the same time every day. I recommend exercising first thing in the morning.
Once you've put on your shoes, if you're up to it, push yourself just a little bit. Maybe go out for a 1-minute walk for a few days. If that gets easy, go for a longer walk. Eventually, you might want to start lightly jogging. But if you're not feeling up to it one day, just focus on putting on your running shoes - don't try hard.
The evidence is overwhelmingly clear - exercise, even just a little, is fantastic for depression. The key to making exercise a part of your life is to build the habit of starting, through daily consistency for an extended period of time.
Leucht, Stefan et al. “How effective are common medications: a perspective based on meta-analyses of major drugs.” BMC medicine vol. 13 253.
Schuch, Felipe et al. “Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias.” Journal of Psychiatric Research vol 77 42-51.
Cuijpers, Pim et al. “A Meta-Analysis of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for Adult Depression, Alone and in Comparison With Other Treatments.” CanJPsychiatry vol 58 (7) 376-385.
Blumenthal, James et al. “Effects of Exercise Training on Older Patients With Major Depression.” Arch Intern Med. vol 159 (19) 2349-2356.