Is Exercise the Best Drug for Depression?

Research has shown again and again that patients who regularly follow an exercise regimen see improvement in their depression -- improvements comparable to that of those treated with medication. Exercise not only relieves depressive symptoms but also appears to prevent them from recurring. And unlike medication, exercise has no negative side effects!

According to Times Magazine: "Molecular biologists and neurologists have begun to show that exercise may alter brain chemistry in much the same way that antidepressant drugs do -- regulating the key neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine." Studies on exercise as a treatment for depression are showing that there is a strong correlation between improved mood and aerobic capacity. So there's a growing acceptance that the mind-body connection is very real, and that maintaining good physical health can significantly lower your risk of suffering from depressive symptoms and even developing depression in the first place.

Regular, appropriately intense exercise is a must for most people suffering from depression. And unlike the other common treatment, antidepressants, it will not cause any negative side effects. However, since no one is going to be making tens of billions of dollars on encouraging you to exercise, it has not received the amount of funding for studies that antidepressant drugs have received. But, when the studies are performed, exercise continually comes out on top, demonstrating benefits above and beyond what antidepressant drugs can achieve.

Exercise for Depression: What does the Research Say?

Increasing evidence is showing that exercise leads to improvements in depression that rival or surpass those from antidepressant drugs.

One study conducted by Duke University in the late 1990's divided depressed patients into three treatment groups:

  1. Exercise only
  2. Exercise plus antidepressant
  3. Antidepressant drug only

After six weeks, the drug-only group was doing slightly better than the other two groups. However, after 10 months of follow-up, it was the exercise-only group that had the highest remission and stay-well rate.

The results really are impressive when you consider that exercise is virtually free and can provide you with numerous other health benefits too. For instance, one study found that 30-minute aerobic workouts done three to five times a week cut depressive symptoms by 50 percent in young adults.

In another study, which involved 80 adults aged 20 to 45 years who were diagnosed with mild to moderate depression, researchers looked at exercise alone to treat the condition and found:

  • Those who exercised with low-intensity for three and five days a week showed a 30 percent reduction in symptoms
  • Participants who did stretching flexibility exercises 15 to 20 minutes three days a week averaged a 29 percent decline

The results of this study are similar to that of other studies, which involved patients with mild or moderate depression being treated with antidepressants or cognitive therapy -- proving patients need not rely on drugs to treat depression.

The caution I would mention, however, is that most of the medical world is seriously confused about exercise and biased heavily toward aerobic exercises. I am convinced that you simply need some higher intensity exercises.

A Prescription for Exercise …

I've long said that you can use exercise like a drug to help heal numerous ailments, and now in some countries like the UK, antidepressants are no longer recommended as the first line of therapy for mild to moderate depression. Instead, doctors there write out a prescription to see an exercise counselor instead. As medical journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Robert Whitaker shared: "With that prescription… you now get either a reduced rate or a free rate at a gym for six months. Part of the exercise might be "green gyms"… gardening outside, nature walks, repairing trails, hiking trails. And they are finding that people really like this. People comply with it… People who have gone through this course and have been prescribed exercise, they say that rather than seeing themselves as a victim of depression, and helpless before it -- that they have this sort of biological problem they can't do anything about -- they say, "Aha, I can make a change, I can do something. It's in my willpower to do something that will help this problem lift." So it empowers the patient in a different way that drugs do not."

How Exercise Alters Your Brain for the Better

As Time magazine reported, neuroscience professor Philip Holmes and colleagues from the University of Georgia have found that exercise regulates serotonin and norepinephrine, two key neurotransmitters in your brain. And in just a few weeks, exercise "switches on" genes that increase your brain levels of galanin, a neurotransmitter that helps lessen your body's stress response. Time magazine stated:

"The result is that exercise primes the brain to show less stress in response to new stimuli … A little bit of mental strain and excess stimulation from exercise, in other words, may help us to keep day-to-day problems in perspective."

Four More Natural Tips to Beat Depression

This illness can be truly tragic on a person's life, so I urge you to seek out a knowledgeable natural health care practitioner who can help you on your healing journey. Along with exercise, below you will find the four cornerstones of healthy living that would be part of any successful treatment plan.

  1. Address your stress -- Depression is a very serious condition, however it is not a "disease." Rather, it's a sign that your body and your life are out of balance. This is so important to remember, because as soon as you start to view depression as an "illness," you think you need to take a drug to fix it. In reality, all you need to do is return balance to your life, and one of the key ways to doing this is addressing stress. Meditation or yoga can help. Sometimes all you need to do is get outside for a brisk walk.

  2. Eat a healthy diet -- Another factor that cannot be overlooked is your diet. Foods have an immense impact on your mood and ability to cope and be happy, and eating whole foods will best support your mental health. Avoiding sugar and grains will help normalize your insulin and leptin levels, which is another powerful tool in addressing depression.

  3. Support optimal brain functioning with essential fats -- I also strongly recommend supplementing your diet with a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat, like fish oil or krill oil. This may be the single most important nutrient to battle depression.

  4. Get plenty of sunshine – Making sure you're getting enough sunlight exposure to have healthy vitamin D levels is also a crucial factor in treating depression or keeping it at bay. One previous study found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels. Vitamin D deficiency is actually more the norm than the exception, and has previously been implicated in both psychiatric and neurological disorders.

This information has been brought to you from the newsletter of Dr. Joseph Mercola (

Tagged: depression, chiropractic, fitness, sad, subluxation, wellness, energy, exercise, unhappy, stress, brain, depressed, antidepressants, healthy, nerves, emotion, health, nutrition


DaniB 8 years, 2 months ago

I wholeheartedly agree that exercise and healthy living are invaluable in lessening the effects of depression. However, I resent the implication that depression is not an "illness" as if people who suffer from depression somehow bring it upon themselves. If we only took better care of ourselves, it would miraculously go away. I've suffered from depression and anxiety since I've been in the 4th grade. It is well managed, and I'm extremely healthy, participate in Dog Days (and get a t-shirt) every year, and I'm very conscious about Vitamin D, and omega 3s. However, no matter what I do, it never goes away completely. I think it is irresponsible on the part of Dr. Quack-ola to oversimplify this condition. What if depression and/or anxiety are caused by a serotonin imbalance? Would you tell a diabetic or thyroid patient to quit taking their insulin or Synthroid because they are simply out of balance? So much more to say, but this article has me out of balance and I need to take a walk.

seancailteux 8 years, 2 months ago

Danielle, Thank you so much for your comment. I am glad to hear that you employ exercise and a healthy diet to help manage your depression. That is precisely the approach this article recommends we take. Also, its clear that this topic strikes a personal chord, so I completely understand and appreciate your passionate response. However, please allow me to clear up just a few things. First, Dr. Mercola never recommends that anyone with depression stop taking their antidepressants. It is very important that I clear that up. He is simply informing the public that there is research supporting the claim that "patients need not RELY on drugs to treat depression." When you consider that our nation is one of the most medicated, yet still one of the unhealthiest countries in the world, it points to the suggestion that perhaps we RELY too much on pharmaceuticals and not enough on natural therapies such as proper nutrition and exercise. I think it is interesting to hear reports that "in some countries like the UK, antidepressants are no longer recommended as the first line of therapy for mild to moderate depression". Once again, let's be clear as to what this statement means. It does not say that people with depression should never take medication. It only says that medication perhaps need not always be the "first line" of treatment in cases of "mild to moderate" depression. So to be clear, the article never says that medication is useless, or that it is not ever useful for people with depression. In fact, as the article points out, some of the study groups showed improvement with medication. Also, as you so wonderfully pointed out, depression can be caused by a serotonin imbalance. I believe this is why Dr. Mercola cites the Time magazine report in which neuroscience professor Philip Holmes and colleagues from the University of Georgia found that "exercise regulates serotonin and norepinephrine, two key neurotransmitters in your brain". Finally, Dr. Mercola never makes the claim that depression will "miraculously go away" with any treatment. Nor does he ever suggest that it ever goes away completely. He only states that it is "managed" more effectively when our bodies and our lives are better taken care of and in better balance. This is a fact that I think we can all attest to. Daniele, thank you again for your comment. I am truly sorry if in any way you felt personally attacked by this article. And although I don't always agree with everything Dr. Mercola has to say (or any other health practitioner for that matter), I do find his website to be a valuable resource with a plethora of great information. I appreciate and agree with the information he presents in this article. Have a fantastic weekend, and keep the comments coming, Dr. Sean

DaniB 8 years, 2 months ago

Thanks for your reply. Please see my response to Jane below! I think you're post brings up valid questions about the over-medication of our society, and how we view depression. Obviously, this topic is very personal to me, but I didn't really feel attacked, per se. It's just that there is still such a stigma attached to depression, as though depression sufferers could just snap out of it if they wanted to do so, as if they are doing something wrong, or want to feel awful. When a person is doing everything right, and they still suffer from this condition, there’s not a lot of hope. Rather than progressing and promoting the understanding that this is a physical as well as mental condition, as of late, it seems like there is a regression towards blaming the sufferer of depression. On online message boards, if someone admits that that they are taking medication the response is often, "Well, I guess it's easier to medicate yourself than deal with your problems." I view Dr. Mercola as essentially saying the same thing, but in more technical language. I hope you have a good weekend too! Keep up the interesting topics!

jestevens 8 years, 2 months ago

Yes, it's true that many people who have severe depression need the chemical boost that exercise and a good diet cannot provide. Sometimes, no matter how much we take care of ourselves naturally, enough damage has been done to our system that our cells are incapable of manufacturing the chemicals necessary for our well-being. Thanks for providing that important, informative and personal perspective, Danielle. It is very useful.

However, calling Sean "Dr. Quak-ola" isn't friendly or productive. We're creating an environment here where people can provide information without calling someone a name because they say something with which you disagree. It's typical to "flame" people on other sites, but not here. So, please, we'd appreciate it if you refrained from doing that in future posts.

Sean -- it would be great if you could provide links to the studies you mention. And thanks for addressing Danielle's concerns.

DaniB 8 years, 2 months ago

No, I was calling Dr. Mercola a quack (Dr. Quack-ola), not Dr. Sean, LOL. Sorry for the misunderstanding. I think it's great that he posted the article because its very relevant and great for discussion. I'll reply to his post next. The "Dr. Mercola as a doctor" topic is for another day. Dr. Sean, I hope you didn't also think that I was insulting you.

seancailteux 8 years, 2 months ago

Of course Jane. The major reference for this article is the June 19, 2010 edition if Time Magazine. Here is a web-link:,8599,1998021,00.html Also, I am glad you pointed out that "sometimes, no matter how much we take care of ourselves naturally, enough damage has been done to our system that our cells are incapable of manufacturing the chemicals necessary for our well-being." That is a huge point to consider when someone with mild to moderate depression decides to begin taking medication as the first line of treatment. For as we well know, when we take medications to regulate the production of certain chemicals in our body, we can dampen the innate potential of our body to control such levels on its own. So often the drugs will eventually lose their effect, needing the amount to be progressively increased. Unfortunately, these drugs don't do anything to help the body fix the problem. They only do the work for the body, until eventually the body completely loses the ability to regulate the chemicals. At which point drugs must be constantly supplied. So hence the article's suggestion that perhaps drugs aren't always the best initial approach for those with mild to moderate depression. Danielle, I figured that you were referring to Dr. Mercola as "Dr. Quack-ola". No offense taken. I do respect your decision to disagree and question his approach to health, or mine for that matter. However, this may not be the best arena to take that kind of a shot at someone's credentials =)

DaniB 8 years, 2 months ago

:) It does beg the question though, if one suffers from mild to moderate depression and they can barely function, how they are going to exercise to alleviate their symptoms? Sometimes meds as a first line of treatment allow a person to have the energy to engage in healthy behaviors so it seems counterproductive to eliminate them as a first line of treatment. It seems like it would make more sense to prescribe them and then use exercise once the person feels better, and then quit taking the medication when they are able to maintain engage in depression-alleviating behaviors such as exercise.

One interesting personal note, I will say that even brisk walking isn't nearly as effective for my mood in general as the occasional sprint. I wasn't getting my "runner's high" as readily but when I started sprinting it definitely elevated my mood so I think you're definitely on to something there.

seancailteux 8 years, 2 months ago

I completely agree! If someone suffers so severely from depression that he/she cannot even function, then how can they be expected to exercise when they are so "shut down" from their condition?! This person is probably at the level that you and Jane both addressed, in which enough damage has been done to their system that the cells are incapable of manufacturing the chemicals necessary for their well-being. I wouldn't consider this moderate or mild depression, however. Someone in this condition is certainly in a state of emergency or crisis. This is where the medical model becomes truly valuable. And when combined with exercise, good nutrition, and proper relaxation methods, gives the person a great chance at a happy, functional life.

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