Can sports and exercise help to relieve depression?

Photo of a woman cycling

Sports and exercise can help to relieve the symptoms of . But it is not clear whether particular forms of exercise are more suitable than others.

Depression can have any of a number of symptoms. The most common signs include feeling down for a long time, listlessness, not enjoying things, and generally not being interested in anything – even in hobbies and activities you used to enjoy. Various treatment options and support services are available for people who have . Psychotherapy and medication (antidepressants) are the two main building blocks of the treatment of .

People who have often don't feel like doing anything, and end up not getting much physical exercise. Exercise and sports – like Nordic walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or hiking – are commonly recommended to relieve or prevent . Many people who manage to do sports in addition to having other treatments – despite having – say that it feels good to be able to do something to fight their themselves. Sports give them the opportunity to be active and to meet other people. It is also thought that doing sports has a positive effect on the brain’s metabolism, and therefore on the itself too.

Research on sports and exercise for depression

Many studies have looked into the benefits of sports and exercise in . They compared the effectiveness of sports and exercise programs with that of other approaches. Many of these studies looked at the effects of jogging and Nordic walking, while others tested cycling, doing exercises and strength training. Most of the studies were of endurance sports, followed by strength training. The majority of these programs ran for 1 to 16 weeks.

The symptoms improved

The researchers mainly wanted to find out whether participating in sports and exercise programs can relieve the symptoms of . The researchers found the following: Exercise and sports have a positive effect. People who participated in exercise programs had, on average, somewhat fewer symptoms than people who didn’t participate and who also didn’t receive any other form of treatment.

But it is hard to estimate how much the depressive symptoms were reduced. That varied a lot from study to study. In some, the symptoms only decreased a little, while in others they were reduced by a lot. Exercise programs with a personal trainer were more effective than ones without.

Side effects were rare. The side effects that did occur were usually milder muscle or joint problems. Some participants dropped out of the programs early. This could be seen as a sign that the type of suggested exercise – usually jogging or Nordic walking – may not have been right for everyone. This means that it is even more important to check what type of exercise suits you and to see what level of intensity is good for you.

The studies do not have a conclusive answer to some questions, though: Are some types of sports more suitable than others, for example? Is it better to do sports and exercise in groups or on your own? It is also not clear how long the effect lasts.

Take into account the severity of the depression

Sports and exercise typically can’t replace psychotherapy or antidepressants for the treatment of moderate to severe , but they can be a useful addition to a treatment. In mild , physical activity is a good alternative for people who don’t want to start a treatment right away. In Germany, statutory health insurers will be covering sports therapy in the future.

Sometimes it isn't appropriate to encourage someone to get more exercise. It is hardly possible for many people with severe to do sports. That is more viable for someone who has mild . And exercise doesn’t have to mean doing a lot of sports. If you have severe symptoms, just taking regular walks to get fresh air can help.

Cooney GM, Dwan K, Greig CA et al. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013; (9): CD004366.

Heissel A, Heinen D, Brokmeier LL et al. Exercise as medicine for depressive symptoms? A systematic review and meta-analysis with meta-regression. Br J Sports Med 2023; 57(16): 1049-1057.

Kvam S, Kleppe CL, Nordhus IH et al. Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis. J Affect Disord 2016; 202: 67-86.

Morres ID, Hatzigeorgiadis A, Stathi A et al. Aerobic exercise for adult patients with major depressive disorder in mental health services: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Depress Anxiety 2019; 36(1): 39-53.

Schuch FB, Vancampfort D, Rosenbaum S et al. Exercise improves physical and psychological quality of life in people with depression: A meta-analysis including the evaluation of control group response. Psychiatry Res 2016; 241: 47-54.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

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Updated on April 15, 2024

Next planned update: 2027


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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