Natural Happiness: The Truth About Exercise and Depression

We all want to be happy.

But is there anything you can actually do to feel happier more often? Or at the very least… can you limit the likelihood that you’ll feel sad and depressed?

There isn’t a single perfect answer, of course, but research is starting to reveal the incredible connection between our physical actions and our mental health. In fact, it’s very possible that what you do can have a significant impact on how you feel.

As an example, let’s take a look at the link between exercise and depression.

Dealing With Depression: Exercise vs. Medication

James Blumenthal is a neuroscientist at Duke University who specializes in depression. In one of his most famous experiements, published in the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, Blumenthal gathered 156 adults who had mild or moderate cases of depression.

The patients were split into three groups.

Group 1 was treated with sertraline, an antidepressant drug. You probably know sertraline by it’s trade names Zoloft and Lustral. In 2011, over 37 million sertraline prescriptions were written to treat a wide range of issues, including major depressive disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder, panic and social anxiety.

Group 2 used a combination of exercise and medication. They were prescribed the same dosage of sertraline as Group 1. Additionally, Group 2 exercised three times each week for 45 minutes. They followed the same exercise program that is described for Group 3 below.

Group 3 used an exercise only treatment. Three times per week, they performed 45 minutes of exercise. This included 10 minutes of warm up, 30 minutes of walking or jogging at a pace that would maintain a heart rate that was 80% to 90% of their maximum, and then 5 minutes of cool down.

Here’s what happened…

Each patient received treatment for 16 weeks (4 months) under the supervision of the researchers and professional staff. At the end of the treatment period, the researchers were surprised to find that all three treatments delivered essentially equal results.

Treating depression with exercise was just as effective as medication, and vice versa. Furthermore, combining the two treatments yielded the same success rate as doing either one individually.

But then the researchers decided to track the long–term progress of each patient and this is where the study gets really interesting…

Exercise and Depression: The Long–Term Impact

After 16 weeks of treatment, there were 83 patients (spread evenly across all three groups) that were declared in remission and free from depression.

The researchers decided to let these patients spend the next six months without receiving any treatment from professionals. The patients were welcome to continue their treatment on their own or to try something new entirely.

When the researchers followed up with the patients six months later, here’s what they found…

  • In the medication only group, 38% of patients relapsed into depression.
  • In the exercise and medication group, 31% of patients relapsed into depression.
  • In the exercise only group, only 8% of patients relapsed into depression.

You can see the results of the study in the graph below. Notice that over 85% of patients in the exercise only group remained depression free after 6 months on their own.

exercise and depression

What made the difference?

Why Exercise Outperformed Medication

Dr. Blumenthal and his colleagues described the differences between exercise and medication like this…

One of the positive psychological benefits of systematic exercise is the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self–regard, which we believe is likely to play some role in the depression–reducing effects of exercise.

In other words, exercise confirms your new identity to yourself. It changes the type of person that you believe that you are and proves that you can become better. (I’ve previously said that the self–confidence that comes with exercise is one of the biggest benefits of weight training.)

This philosophy directly aligns with our community’s focus on identity-based habits. It doesn’t matter if you’re battling depression, working to lose weight, or trying to create work that matters. Your identity — the type of person that you believe that you are — is what dictates how far you’ll go in any endeavor.

When it comes to beating depression over the long–term, this is what makes exercise more powerful than medication. It’s not that medication doesn’t work — it does. But exercise does something that medication doesn’t. It proves a new identity to yourself. Each time you finish a workout, you reap the benefits of an increased sense of self–confidence. The cumulative impact of these “small wins” is enormous.

In the words of the researchers, patients who only used medication had the following internal thoughts…

Instead of incorporating the belief “I was dedicated and worked hard with the exercise program; it wasn’t easy, but I beat this depression,” patients might incorporate the belief that “I took an antidepressant and got better.”

It seems small, but this subtle shift in empowerment and self–confidence is huge. It’s your identity that carries you to success.

  • If you believe that you’re the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts, then you’re going to get in great shape.
  • If you believe that you’re the type of person who overcomes uncertainty, then you’ll succeed when you face a challenge.
  • If you believe that you’re the type of person who puts others first, then you’ll live a life of service.

But no matter what, it’s your identity that carries you to long–term success. And this is where medication falls short. It treats your symptoms, but doesn’t rebuild your identity.

Cut Your Risk of Depression by Half

As the researchers sorted through the data, they discovered that for every 50 minutes of exercise added each week, the rate of depression fell by half. In other words, if you’re not exercising right now, then adding just 1–hour of walking per week will cut your risk of depression by 50%.

The same holds true if you’re already an exerciser. Let’s say that right now you exercise for 5 hours each week. Bumping it up to 6 hours will cut your personal risk of depression by half.

I’m sure there is an upper limit to this at some point, but the evidence is clear: exercise often and it’s more likely that you’ll enjoy the rest of your life.

How You Can Apply This To Your Life

If you’re struggling with depression, then the application of this article should be obvious. (And if you know someone battling with depression, then please share this research with them. It might help them turn the corner.)

But even if you consider yourself to be a happy person, the principle of proving your identity to yourself can apply to virtually any goal you want to achieve.

Pick a daily habit that will strengthen your sense of self–worth and solidify your identity. For example, you could try meditation, exercise, writing, or creating art.

Whatever you choose, pick it now, start small, and begin proving to yourself that you can become the type of person you want to become. Tiny habits, when repeated consistently, can be the difference success or failure, confidence or doubt, and even happiness or depression.

29 Comments

  1. Good stuff, James.

    I am interested in how the type and time of day of exercise impact happiness, also. I am a big fan of getting even just a half hour of exercise in during a lunch break when it is sunny outside over a longer workout that is an early morning gym workout when it is still dark outside – there is just something about being outside during the day for me that is totally energizing!

    This is something that I used your advice on routines in order to start up – I really have to prioritize this in my schedule because our work traditions in this country seem to look down upon lunchtime workouts – a shame for our productivity it seems to me.

    Any research out there on this? I am sure some people would get a bigger benefit at different times of the day, anyway, just based on what it is that they enjoy and where they get that confidence boost from…

    happy days,
    moose

    • Moose — this is a great question. There are tons of benefits to being outside and in the sun, so I’m sure there’s something to it. There might even be a compound effect of exercise and sunlight. In any case, I’ve got it on my list to check out further.

      Keep up the good work on your end!

  2. Very interesting topic!

    I remember listening to a radio show, in which some psychologist was interviewed. A guy called and asked what to do about his depression. The answer? “Start every day with 20 squats”.

    Of course, this is a very simplified approach but exercise is probably the most rewarding way for someone to start taking control of their life and it really doesn’t take much effort to start with (small).

    From my own experience, I currently exercise 6 days a week (not over-training :) ) and it’s amazing to log that my productivity/overall state of mind actually drops on that one day a week I dedicate to resting.

    On a side note, I always wondered, how “real” is depression as a sickness and how much of it is a by-product of persons lifestyle.

    Great article, James!

    Sincerely

    • Darius — thanks for sharing.

      One point I want to make though — depression is very real. It has it’s roots in biology the same way diabetes or heart failure does. Depression happens to effect the mind, so I think we often categorize it as a mental thing and not a body thing, but it’s definitely both.

      In any case, you raise some good points. Exercise is one of the best medicines out there, that’s for sure.

  3. Great post James. I suffer/suffered from depression for about two years. Exercise helps greatly. However, one downside to exercising when with depression is that if you become overwhelmed by depression during or before your workout and you can’t workout, then you become even more depressed. However, I had major depression and the experiment mentioned above was done on those with mild or moderate depression so it may be different for me and others with major depression.

    Hope I made sense lol :)

    • Mohamed — first, thanks for sharing your experience. Keep up the great work on your end.

      And you’re right, exercise is far from a perfect solution. My hope was that by sharing it, some people might find it useful and turn the corner.

      In any case, it’s great to have you in the community. Thanks for reading!

  4. James! This is so spot on! I absolutely love it and can personally attest to the truth you share. There are SO many nuggets of truth here! It’s truly about rebuilding your identity…

    A couple of years ago after a divorce, job loss, death of a family member and other stressors, I’d allowed myself to slip into apathy and depression. I’d let go of any exercise and I spiraled downward. I was prescribed an anti-depressant.

    Then a year ago I was diagnosed with mild heart disease (no surprise really) and I had a choice to make.

    Now, 1 year later and after almost daily exercise, I’m 35 lbs lighter, off psych meds, I’ve cut my statin in half and the personal mastery and confidence that can’t help but follow has been a huge surprise. The payoff that I’ve received from eating better and riding my bike like a maniac (I’ve two replaced hips) has been better movement, walking taller, facing difficult challenges (yes, they still come) with more tenacity and a far greater ability to overcome uncertainty.

    I’m now a person who doesn’t miss workouts. I can’t. If I do I’m missing time for me. Time to think, to get energized, to think through problems and challenges, to be stronger, to experience a spiritual connection. I’ve now grown to understand that this is a must do. It needs to be one of those firsts in my life. Because if I’m not strong I can be of little value to others.

    Thank you James!

    • Garry — this is awesome. Congrats on your progress thus far and thanks so much for sharing your story. It’s great to hear about people who are putting these ideas into practice and moving forward in life. Keep up the great work!

  5. That’s not a good thing to just drop taking meds for depression since it can cause some major side effects.

    • Juan — you raise a great point. I hope that people don’t read this and immediately drop their medication. I’m simply sharing the research that shows exercise to be an effective alternative. Obviously, personal questions should be made in conjunction with your physician.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. James, thank you so much for taking the time to research this and put it out there. When I started seriously exercising, I noticed a marked shift in my happiness. It continued to increase the more exercise I added. I am now walking five miles a day, and lifting weights three times a week.

    Exercise helped me decrease, and eventually discontinue, Klonopin. I never felt as good on Klonopin as I do on exercise!

    • Tammy — first, congrats on your progress! That’s great. And I love how you phrase it “on exercise” … it’s a drug that helps us all. :)

  7. Great insight, James! Seems similar to the old saying, “If you teach a man to fish” versus “If you give a man a fish.”

  8. I am not surprised meditation can cause relapse. When one meditates it makes one go deeper inside of themselves. This can access old wounds and I would think a good meditation teacher could guide them through all of the darkness of their wounds. This is not a fast way… it takes time. Exercise is quicker but I wonder how it really affects the emotional healing? Most people do not seem to be interested in following that anyway. So my conclusion is exercise not only strengthens the body but also the mind. After all life is about choice and with more strength one can say no to depression thoughts!

    Thank you for your research.

    • Denny — thanks for reading! It’s great to have you in our little community.

      Just to clear things up, the research was comparing exercise and medication (aka pharmaceutical drugs) as effective treatments for depression. Not meditation (aka mindfulness and deep thought).

      That said, meditation is a wonderful practice itself! Just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. Thanks for reading!

  9. Great post, James. And so true!

    My personal burden/gift is bipolar disorder. Exercise is so effective in the depressive cycle. My only problem is the will required to dig myself outta the hole and get moving. (Norepinephrine, I think, is the “get up & go” chemical that I’m lacking, among many others, lol!)

    I’m trying to apply your “just make a start” attitude to at least get off the couch and not be so overwhelmed. I’m finding your posts very relevant.
    Thanks so much.

    P.S. although I’ve signed up for your twice weekly posts so far I haven’t received anything… ?

    • Nutter — first, thanks so much for sharing your experience. It’s great to have you in our little community. I’m sure that many of our members are benefitting from your willingness to share.

      As far as the mailings go… how long have you been signed up? I write a new article every Monday and Thursday. You can see a full list of previous articles here: http://jamesclear.com/archives

      If you haven’t been receiving the articles, then I would recommend two things. First, check your spam folder. If you don’t see the posts there, then I would recommend signing up again here: http://jamesclear.com/newsletter

      Note: you have to click the confirmation link in the first email I send you after signing up. Also, don’t worry about filling the form out twice — you’ll only be subscribed once if you use the same email address as before.

      Hopefully that clears things up. Sorry for the trouble. And thanks for reading!

  10. I have the challenge of a brain injury since 1991. It was severe, but I recovered to the degree that I was able to return to work with some modifications. I recently retired due to my disability. But one of the really difficult things for me is initiation. I have the best of intentions, but am easily distracted. I always feel better after I exercise, but I have a hard time getting myself out of my house or even exercising in my house.. It is my comfort zone. I am a nurse, and I know all this stuff in my head. But here I sit, in my bed at 9:45 AM working on my iPad when I should be out in my yard, preparing flower beds. Just writing this down is motivating me. Thanks for the motivation!

  11. James,

    Prior to becoming an avid surfer I used to have a really bad case of IBS. I tried just about everything from diet changes to anti-depressants. What’s interesting is I was also fairly depressed during most of that time. Everything really stressed me about. Something as a simple as a long line would send me into a frenzy.

    When I started surfing all that changed. The stomach aches really calmed down. I felt emotionally and physically better than I ever have. SO it’s not surprise to me that exercise has the impact on depression that it does.

  12. I got an email the other week saying about the same thing. and there’s no denying the truth in this. Especially in the rebuilding the identity part. brilliant. But I have the same thoughts then as I do now. This information is especially useful to people who are, well, not depressed, dare I say. It’s absolutely motivating and helpful to keep going when you are just starting out for example but it’s just not going to make a depressed person head over to the gym. It’s just not. A major factor I think in these studies is that the people who where in the excercising groups where being guided yeah. They got help, didn’t have to do it on their own. That’s an entirely different situation. Think about how hard it can be for a non-depressed person even to get motivated to start moving let alone someone who’s in that black mental state. With other issues as anxiety, social fears, low self-esteem etc… in the picture too.

    I’m not being negative or anything, au contraire. I think the question how depressed people REALLY can be helped into finding excercise a helpful strategy in their battle is sadly been neglected. Sure GP’s and shrinks and friends and family tell their patients and loved ones to ‘go exercise’ but well, that’s not enough. Just my thoughts.

  13. I have had major depressive disorder and social anxiety for over 8 years, and I have tried exercising for the past 2 years every other day for at least 30 minutes. I have felt zero effect on my symptoms even combined with therapy. For me I can’t say that exercise has any effect on depression. I wish that wasn’t the case.

  14. I believe on personal and professional level this study correlates with success of the whole person. Thank God we are not only looking at short fixes and bandaids!

    Thanks for your effort in spreading the TRUTH.

  15. I’ve been dealing with grief over my mother who passed 2 years ago and it’s starting to hit me now. I’ve been prescribed SSRIs but I really don’t want to take them. It’s good to know that exercising is the best way to deal with this depression instead of popping pills.

    • Hi KaDerrick — sorry to hear about the loss of your mother. I do want to point out one thing about this study: exercise worked well for people with mild to moderate bouts of depression, not for severe depression. Obviously, I don’t know the details of your specific situation and can’t comment on that, but my suggestion would be to use this information in conjunction with your physician and not as a strict replacement to it. Good luck!