The benefits of exercise on depression!

Great blogpost by Daniel Quinn about the effects of exercise on depression!

Daniel Quinn is the clinic director of ReBalance Physiotherapy. He is a keen blogger and posts regularly on sports physio and strength and conditioning topics. His clinics website contains many of his previous blogs. He is active on social media regularly posting blogs and video, including his Ultramarathon video diary.
These can be found at Facebook , twitter: @rebalance_PT) and Instagram: @rebalancephysiotherapy.

Exercise and Depression: Specificity and Intensity Matter

Exercise can help manage medical illnesses such as depression, coronary heart disease, respiratory and musculoskeletal conditions. There is a growing body of research that supports exercise in the management of these conditions.

Depression can be either primary or secondary. That is depression can be an illness due to chemical imbalances in the brain due to direct environmental effects, or due to another illness, respectively.

Seasonally affected disorder is a form of primary depression. Seasonal affected disorder is a change in mood that occurs during the shorts days of autumn until the end of winter. It has been attributed to the reduced daylight hours. This reduction leads to a decrease in chemical messengers in the brain that stimulate positive feelings. It can cause confusion with your body clock, leading to a feeling of being ‘off’. These two components affect your mood in a negative manner and bring on symptoms of anxiety, depression or bipolar disorders.

Seasonal affected disorder has symptoms such as low energy, decreased interest in past times, poor sleep patterns, feeling agitated and decreased concentration. Weight gain and a tendency to consume a poor diet is common – looking for ‘comfort foods’ more often than during the summer.

A higher risk of seasonally affected disorder is seen in young females with a history of mental disorders or a family history of similar illnesses. Seasonal affected disorder is also more common in populations that are located further from the equator – where days are shorter during the cold winter months.

Exercise, and in particular endurance sports, help to combat the effects of seasonal affected disorder through both long and short term mechanisms. In the short term, running helps to lift your mood through a release of endorphins. This ‘runners high’ helps to improve mood and has been shown to be just as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy and psychiatric medication in the treatment of anxiety/depression. With regular exercise this effect becomes more consistent and continually reduce the symptoms of seasonal affect disorder.


In the long term exercise also helps to improve self-image and reduce the symptoms of any pre-existing medical conditions which can contribute to the onset of seasonal affected disorder. Reducing these symptoms allows for the body to create a buffer against the effects of the decreased daylight hours. This means that instead of the shorter days being the final straw, your body will be able to handle the changes and result in less seasonal affected disorder symptoms.

Secondary depression generally accounts for 40% of depression diagnosis and is due to the psychological effects of living with a life threatening or limiting illness. For example a person who has had a stroke and now has difficulty with speech, emotional expression or physical ability may develop depression. This 40% also includes people who find themselves unable to live the life they want to due to heart, respiratory, rheumatological and orthopaedic conditions or cancer diagnosis.

Understanding the cause of an individual’s symptoms of depression enables the creation of a more specific and efficient workout and can even increase the chance of survival for certain diseases.

If we focus on the primary illness and treat it optimally we see greater improvements in physical capacity. A link has been shown to exist between an increase in physical functioning and a decrease in depressive symptoms in people experiencing depression.

For example, coronary artery disease symptoms have shown greater improvement with resistance exercises than aerobic workouts alone. So, if we know that the onset of depression is caused by coronary artery disease, we can treat both the symptoms of heart condition and depression more effectively by incorporating resistance exercises into the program.


Another example is seen in people diagnosed with breast or prostate cancer, survival rates are higher in patients who walk or take part in high intensity interval. When we can efficiently increase the physical capacity of people with a diagnosis of cancer while also optimising their chance of survival through type of exercise, specific exercise prescription becomes highly important. Knowing that following a specific, individually tailored exercise programme can increase quality of life and offer higher chances of survival can be emotionally empowering for a person. Research shows that breast cancer mortality rates are decreased by 41% in people who exercise compared to those who don’t. In prostate cancer it is decreased by 61%.

Exercise is a vital component of managing depression. For people who experience depression secondary to other health conditions, exercise prescription can be tailored to treat both the primary illness and the secondary depression.