Can Exercise Treat Depression?

Can Exercise Treat Depression?

[♪ INTRO ] There are lots of good reasons to exercise,
like toning those biceps, the satisfaction of breaking a sweat, or just actually using
that gym membership you got when you made that resolution. And exercising is good for your general health
and wellness. It can also make you happier. That’s because working out doesn’t just
affect your body-fat percentage — it can also change the way you feel by boosting happy
brain chemicals and buffering your response to stress. And the effects can be so dramatic that many
psychologists think regular exercise can help treat disorders like anxiety and depression. Lots of research studies over the past decades
have drawn a clear link between exercise and positive feelings. And the mood-boosting effects of a single
bout of exercise can stick around for up to 24 hours, according to some studies. Part of why you feel so good after exercise,
counterintuitive as it might seem, is because exercise is stressful. Technically speaking, exercise is a physical
stress on the body, which means it activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA
axis—the part of your nervous system that controls your body’s stress response. One of the things it does is signal production
of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol helps produce the physical changes
you associate with stress or exercise, like elevated heart rate. But it also contributes to a negative feedback
loop that eventually shuts down the HPA axis. Levels of cortisol in your blood rise initially
when you’re stressed, but once they reach a certain level, they signal the HPA axis
to relax. And it takes your body some time to reset
everything before cortisol levels can rise again after that happens. That means exercise can act as a buffer to
other stresses that come shortly after, even if they’re psychological rather than physical. For example, a 2015 study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology
had 40 young men do what’s called the Montreal Imaging Stress Task. Basically, you do math problems while a ticker
shows your expected performance on a big screen, which is not exactly relaxing. The researchers found that when subjects ran
on a treadmill for half an hour beforehand, they had lower cortisol levels during the
test. But the happy feelings associated with exercise
don’t just come from handling other stresses better. Working out increases your levels of endocannabinoids,
the neurotransmitters linked to the so-called ‘runner’s high.’ They decrease anxiety by binding to cannabinoid
receptors in the brain—yes, cannabinoid like cannabis, because they’re same receptors
the psychoactive compounds in marijuana interact with. Endocannabinoids also help rein in an overactive
HPA axis, so that’s another way exercise can make you more resilient to other types
of stress. Working out also ups your levels of serotonin,
a neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of mood and emotion. The harder you work, the more serotonin you
produce. That’s especially interesting, because low
serotonin is linked to disorders like depression and anxiety. In fact, many antidepressant medications work
by directly or indirectly increasing levels of serotonin in your brain. And another chemical, called brain-derived
neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, also goes up during exercise. BDNF is like fertilizer for your brain. It helps neurons grow and form connections
with other neurons, and generally improves brain health. Researches haven’t yet figured the exact
link between BDNF and mood, but it might help by enhancing your neuroplasticity, the flexibility
that allows your brain to reorganize when you learn or experience something. In depression, neuroplasticity is disrupted,
which makes it difficult for the brain to compensate if important neural circuits become
impaired. So elevating BDNF might help reverse or prevent
that. And, maybe unsurprisingly, antidepressants
also tend to increase BDNF levels. All that said, the similarities between exercise
and antidepressants don’t mean they’re the same. The studies that look at the effects of exercise
on a molecular level are usually only measuring things in the short-term — like, right after
you hop off the treadmill. Which doesn’t tell you much about how long
the boost lasts. But the research is increasingly showing the
long-term benefits of regular exercise, too. One study, published in 2017, examined the
mental health and exercise habits of almost 34,000 Norwegians for more than a decade. And the researchers found that people who
didn’t exercise had a 44% greater chance of developing depression compared to those
who exercised 1-2 hours a week. Other research has found that — at least
for mild to moderate depression — exercise can be just as beneficial as other treatment
options. For example, a 2011 study in the journal Psychosomatic
Medicine of over 200 adults diagnosed with depression found that exercise was just as
effective as an antidepressant over a four month period. Now, before you go out and swap your Paxil
for pilates, it’s worth noting that there were some biases in this study. For one thing, the subjects were people who
responded to an ad about research on treating depression with exercise, so a lot of them
were very pro-exercise in the first place. The researchers also noticed that some people
seemed anti-medication as a treatment. All of which would have affected the results. But no matter how exercise compares to other
treatment options, research has made it pretty clear that working out has all kinds of benefits
for both your mind and body. So if you think you might be depressed, definitely
see a doctor. But if you’re stressed about a project,
or just feeling down in the dumps, getting a little bit of exercise might help. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Psych! If you want to learn more about that buzz
you get from working out, you can learn more about that in our episode on why you get that
runner’s high. [♪ OUTRO ]


  1. There is really no evidence that low serotonin is linked to depression or anxiety. The low serotonin hypothesis has yet to be adequately tested. The fact is that scientists don't know why most psychiatric medications work, but if they worked the way that those old commercials explained then their effects would be a lot faster than they really are.

    One thing that has been found is that those taking psychiatric medications do not seem to experience the same mood elevating benefits from exercise as do those not taking those meds.

  2. For everyone who is telling everyone in the comments about why this won't help them or whatever:
    1) Guys guys guys jesus christ you're missing the point of the video. The claim that exercise can improve symptoms of depression has been a popular one and this video was made (probably, I'm not sure I didn't make it), with the intention of shedding some light on the actual science and accuracy of these claims. For everyone who's acting like Brit just told you that exercise is the cure for depression, please stop. She did not, and it's clear from the evidence backing the claims and the way the video was written that exercise has been shown in peer-reviewed studies to reduce symptoms of depression. It is not easily cured! Exercising can be a good method of reducing symptoms and thus allowing victims to lead a more productive and active life, which tends to help. Also, the better off psychologically a person is, the easier depression becomes to treat. You're acting as though anyone here said that "exercise can cure depression", when no one has said anything of the sort. It was a common claim that exercise could improve symptoms of depression, and the point of this video was to explain the science of the claims and look at them from a purely scientific and logical perspective. Its not about exercise being the ultimate solution.

    2) Yeah it's true that the exercise method of easing symptoms doesn't work for everyone, but nobody said that. People in the comments are acting like someone is shouting at them to get exercising or something like that. Look, I don't know why it doesn't work for you. Maybe you don't have the motivation to try, maybe you don't like to, maybe you just haven't tried yet. It's not for me to say. However, to take this out on someone trying to help you, and spread knowledge to the public, is unfair and unhelpful. I really do understand that a lot of people here are depressed, and yeah, it sucks. I'm sorry for that. But please, please, stop acting as though every video about depression is a personal attack.

    Not trying to be mean here, and there's a good chance I'm gonna get a lot of hate for this, I just saw a lot of stuff I didn't really like in the comments and I wanted to speak up and let y'all know what I was thinking. Sorry mates.

  3. What I get out of this is: Humans are like dogs, we need exercise to keep our us from being high-strung and depressed.

  4. Honestly, exercise makes me feel worse. As a chronic depressive, I really wanted exercise to help, but not only did it not help, it made it worse. Though this video helps me understand – apparently my body's stress triggers don't work, so my body always lives in stress. Maybe since the exercise helps by triggering stress receptors, and my receptors don't work, exercise doesn't work for me.

  5. But to condense this with contemporary understanding, we need to be a bit pedantic. It's not a treatment for depression, anxiety, etc. in the vain of mood disorders. However, it can help treat depression, anxiety, etc. People need to stop claiming it's a replacement for therapy and medication. To put it simply and just as with cannabis, they aren't treatments in and of themselves but are great adjunct options to help speed and maintain recovery. So pop an edible and go for a jog. About the only way to make cardio fun anyway.

  6. Hi! I have severe anxiety and depression and have had it since I was in high school. I have been told many times to go outside more (Texas plus wasps equals no), to eat healthier (can only do so much with a budget and one town grocer), and, of course, exercise.

    None of these treated my mental disorders more than a small uptick from "miserable" to "somewhat functional", which meant bad days would often cut off any progress towards healthier habits for at least a month and set be back to square one.

    I am only making progress now because I am on a medication that makes up for what my brain couldn't do no matter what natural treatment I used.

    This video glosses over this fact with a mention that these results were mostly for people with mild to moderate depression and comes off as misleading and leaning towards ableist.

  7. I used to do exercise, resistance, weight training and what not. I always felt awful for days after and it effected my life as I felt too ill and fatigued to do anything, missing work etc.. It made me feel depressed also.

    Turned out later I found out I had some form of CFS and now exercise is a no no. I feel not the best but much better than when I was physically active and a lot more mentally sharp and happy.

  8. People who are really depressed won't go out of themselfes to a doctor (GP or MD) as they think: what good would do it do?
    I know, I've been there. (Luckily I could cure myself.)

  9. My resting heart rate reduce from 65 to 55 bpm after a period of intense exercise… Doing intense bicycling for about 2h will have this effect lasting for about 36h.

  10. It's a bit counter-intuitive because when you're stressed/depressed exercise is one of the things you don't want to do, but speaking from experience it definitely works.

  11. I went to a university that was built on a hillside so I had to hike up and down hills for 40 minutes everyday to get to my classes, including a 100ft long flight of stairs. I'm sure I was getting a lot of excercise back then, but I still felt fairly depressed for the most part, although I wasn't diagnosed until after graduating. Was never prescribed meds because it was getting better by that point. Years later,
    where I no longer excercise, I don't seem to get depressed anymore. If excercise was supposed to help, I never saw the benefit. Although, back in my college days I ate an unhealthy combination of cheeseburgers and french fries so maybe that made things worse. I eat much healthier now and that seems to have kept me out of depression more than anything else.

  12. Yes, exercise is good for mental health. But when I'm so depressed that I physically can't get out of bed, or so anxious that I can't leave the house without a panic attack, don't TELL ME EXERCISE WILL CURE ME I WILL PROBABLY SPIT ON YOU.
    But for ongoing treatment, relapse prevention and mild depression/anxiety, exercise is great!

  13. What I like about this channel is the fact that on one hand the videos are always entertaining and interesting to watch, but on the other they try to remain as objective as possible, by signalling possible errors in the papers they take into account and, of course, by citing the papers themselves.

  14. When I exercise and my heart rate increases I feel like I'm having an anxiety attack. Its very difficult to overcome.

  15. I find walking is great because it’s gentle, the fresh air if you go outside, and the time to be introspective. I always feel inspired or better after a good walk. I think it’s different than building the stress response similar to smoking a cigarette with cardio, but beneficial none the less. I don’t know what would make high intensity better for depression if low intensity like walking and yoga can make people feel heaps better too. What I’m saying is if you’re new to exercise, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t use the 5 lb weights or only last 5 minutes on the treadmill! It’s all helping you grow and learn about what makes you feel best. Something gentle could be what keeps you on board with exercise in the long term.

  16. Knowing through anecdotal evidence, not necessarily cure, but their is a relief of symptoms associated with Depression.

  17. Well, here's some anecdotal evidence:
    About a week ago, I decided to do sit-ups and push-ups after getting up every day because I've been feeling slightly depressed for years. I've been looking into possible causes for a while now and one possible cause was my inactivity.
    Since I started doing this, I do feel a little better after doing this, though it does wear off towards the evening. That said, I've only been doing it for a week and currently do 20 sit-ups and 10 push-ups. I'm slowly increasing it as I am able to. (More than 10 sit-ups would have been impossible when I started. My stomach hurt a lot after the 10 I did then. Now I don't even feel it after 10, going past 15 is where I start to struggle a little now)

    Placebo effect is something to keep in mind, since I started doing this with the intention of feeling better. While not terribly scientific, I don't really care as long as it helps me 😛
    The great thing about the placebo effect is that it works even if you know it's just placebo.

  18. This is Scishow Psych… So they can't honestly say 'Yes!' or 'No!' on the honest statement of anything like this. Psychosomatic is Psychosomatic… A LOT of bias in things like this… they said 'a little bias', no… you don't understand… Depression and 'you just have to shake yourself out of it' and 'just stop being depressed then' are 'folk' cures for depression from other people (Usually from other people who don't understand what depression is or how it feels to be depressed)…

    Is exercise a cure? I would say 'probably not', I would be more likely to think that 'group exercise' is… it is the being around other people AND doing some sort of activity. But there is no golden bullet with these things without mind-altering chemicals, and many of us don't like feeling loopy. ^^:

  19. The problem is when you're depressed it's often hard to force yourself to eat, even things you love eating. I can't even imagine doing exercise when I'm on a low.

  20. I have suffered from chronic severe depression all of my life ever since I was very young and as a direct result of abuse as a young child. I have never found anything to actually work long-term for me, I've tried prescribed antidepressants multiple times to no avail, used multiple illicit substances with no lasting effect, and exercise only ever drained any energy I was able to actually dredge up to face life and made no difference in my mental state. Magic mushrooms help for a few months at a time sometimes, occasionally a little more (curiously the Psilocybin also cures my migraines for months on end as well), sex helps for a day or two at most…but being in a state of depression for several decades that has made it hard to leave my bed or couch without a massive effort has taken a toll that no amount of exercise, medication, or therapy can manage to alleviate. Sit-ups and jogging can't fix a broken spirit.

  21. Cool…cool…cool. Now do a video on how to mitigate all the effects of depression long enough to be able to actually exercise just once, let alone for months on end…

  22. …Unfortunately exercise is one the easiest ways to trigger my anxiety. There's a very fine line between ending an exercise session feeling good and ending an exercise session having a panic attack.

  23. We should exercise every 24 hours 🙂 as the effects are seen to last upto 24 hours in scientific studies

  24. Excellent video. I like how she mentions the limitations of the data available to us. We still have a lot to learn about the brain and mental illness.

  25. I did my graduate research on the cannabinoid receptor, right after it had been isolated and my research project continued through the discovery of anandamide, the first endocannabinoid.

  26. I used to think SciShow was credible until I watched these psych videos about mood disorders.
    "Mood-boosting chemicals" is just not a phrase you should be using anymore.
    There's so many statements here that either need to be heavily qualified or are straight-up speculative.

  27. Even when I had a regular exercising pattern, I didn't see any difference in my mental health state which sucks because I wish it was that easy. I feel like it can help with anger issues but it actually raises my anxiety levels and doesn't really affect depression as far as I can tell. But I see a very mixed opinions online, in medical research and even in the comments so maybe it's a very personal thing like medications. Just because something works for you, doesn't mean it will for everyone.

  28. I've been doing regular exercise for nearly 3 years and I could attest to this helping me manage my own problems with anxiety/depression. I've noticed stuff like the frequent stress-induced body aches I was experiencing before adopting the lifestyle change… just kind of stopped happening.

    Only time they return is if I didn't get enough sleep or ate too much sugar. But it isn't a constant/consistent complaint anymore. I really do think the whole retuning the HPA axis thing was a major reason for it. Plus, all the other aspects mentioned in this video.

    (Of course, attending therapy and having medication support is largely the foundation that made the lifestyle change possible for me. Especially after being given a tool to help me get some structure and accountability. And these tools help the others work even better than they would in isolation.)

  29. OMG, I've heard it so often it causes nausea in me, I still cannot believe it. Exercise makes me angry, besides the exhaustion. After exercising, be it at a fitness club or just walking, I am furious. I have asked professionals, trainers and psychologists. Their response: big disbelieve, surprised stare. Like they never heard of it. I'd love to feel better after exercise. This is so de-motivating. BTW, I almost caused a car accident once after exercise, I have screamed at people that addressed me after exercise (a lot of times). It is like a bag of something scorching hot inside me that wants to pop. And it takes some time to cool down. No, I am definitely not the right person for your sports team.

  30. You should do an episode on why so many people think psychology is a pseudoscience. I've come across so many people who say that, it's ridiculous.

  31. I'm on a heavy steroid cuz I have a severe health problem, and both cannabis oil and exercise really help with my "roid rage."

    It's good to know that I've got science to back it up!

  32. Lowkey tired of all my meds and while I understand their purpose and significance I'm definitely not against dropping a few in exchange for exercise

  33. I would add a spiritual mixture to the cure all…It worked for me anyway. I went the Jesus path which in turn gave me an inner peace that was not there before. It's hard to verbalize since it's a personal spiritual relationship. By trusting in Jesus for salvation you receive His Spirit which dwells in you, which is the bringer of inner peace. You don't really "feel" anything inside you, but a calmness happens…If you're interested, the bible teaching site, teachingfaith com has a teaching series titled, 'change of mind', which helped me understand the whole thing…all their content is free.

  34. thanks for being super clear that jogging won't cure depression 🙂 i swear it takes years off my life when people suggest that like it's going to magically cure people of depression

  35. Am I the only person who doesn't feel better at all after exercise? Most of the time I just feel like crap afterwards, and then the next day.

  36. ….. exercise really helped me when I was depressed (not clinical). But it took a lot of exercise, I would swim for 2 1/2 hours everyday with a coach and a team to get the effect I needed.

  37. How long does it take cortisol to shut down the HPA axis? If it's less than ~8 hours, then how is it that people with anxiety disorders can feel stressed all day? Is it a different chemical/neutransmitter?

  38. Exercise releases endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t kill their husbands. They just don’t .

  39. also to be noted, exerciser has the side effect of getting you in shape and making you more healthy while Anti-depressants have a long list of bad ones.

  40. One seems to forget that when you’re clinically depressed the last thing on your mind is exercise… or moving.

  41. Let me tell you guys. It is probably the best option you have to deal with depression. I know from experience

  42. issa very hard to consider exercises when joints and muscles are way too sore before you exercise and unbearable after you exercise? Did anyone with Major Depression ever recommended exercises or did some poor excuse for a doctor dream this up?

  43. I struggle with Depression myself, took up Crossfit recently and helped a ton, working out hard and being part of a small community of people with like-minded goals is a really good boost to confidence. May not be for everyone, but I can definitely tell the difference at work when I've been to Xfit the night before, there's a vast jump in overall mood and well being.

  44. Good medication and exercise combine to improve your mental health. There’s no way I could exercise if I didn’t take my antidepressants. Exercise on its own didn’t help my mental health, but when I started the right medication, exercise helped me feel a million times better.

  45. About 5 years ago, I began to fall into a really depressive episode. I believed if ever I have a new sweetheart I will return to who I am in the past but I was incorrect. After adhere to this depression remedy “fetching kafon press” (Google it), I have kept my depression away ever since. The results were basically amazing..

  46. The problem with exercising for depression and anxiety is that… I'm literally too depressed and anxious to exercise; depression destroys my executive functioning to get out of bed or out of a chair, and anxiety prevents me from leaving the house alone, and I'm usually just too sad to do anything and the initial struggle of exercise crushes my willingness to actually do it, so I end up paralyzed and unable to exercise.

  47. All these benefits from experiments on rats. From personal experience it a load rubbish. Depressed before and equally the same afterwards. The only way to survive depression is to be always busy and hope you last the hours your not.


  49. I mean, exercise is great if it's a viable option, but some of us have chronic pain conditions that make any strenuous exercise extremely painful. Stretching and walking are like the only forms of exercise I can do on land (pool exercises are best)

  50. The endocannibinoid explanation makes so much sense. I usually take a couple hits off a joint before I run and I feel beyond amazing. Like I’m flying

  51. Excercise definitely helps manage it. I know a lot of people find getting started extremely difficult because of the lack of motivation to implement a new (healthier) lifestyle. Initially, I was put on 300 mg of wellbutrin which allowed me the motivation to 'get started' because I couldn't stand all this negative thinking. I went out for walks daily, which then graduated to running/jogging with the goal of running my first 5k. Eventually I stopped my medication altogether and stuck with my daily excercise routine. After reaching my goal, I moved on to heavy resistance training. And now I've become more self-conscious about what I put into my body and try to live an active and healthy life. This has overall improved my mood. One thing I learned is that when you begin to empower your body to feel stronger and healthier, you will begin to feel more empowered in all areas of your life. Well that's my story… and if you read this far, I hope you find the power within yourself to make a change in your life, even if its something small. 🙂

  52. Hey beautiful people at sci-show! Could you label the sources you post in the dooblydoo? I often use them for assignments or want to know more about a certain article.
    Anyway, thanks for making these awesome videos! I'm pretty sure you're part of the reason I'm studying psychobiology right now 🙂

  53. So, as someone who has exercised regularly for the last 12 years and still get deep depression periods, I guess I am especially f*cked.

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