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The Link Between Depression and Exercise

Every authority on treating depression recommends exercise as part of a treatment protocol. Could it be that lack of exercise is what is causing depression in the first place?

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The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 10 Americans suffer from some form of depression and nearly 15 million adults in the U.S. live with major or chronic depression. Now, before I go any further, I want to stress that major or chronic depressive disorders (of which there are many) require professional intervention that may necessitate medication, psychotherapy, hospitalization and must be treated by a qualified medical professional.

However, within these CDC estimates resides a category of people reporting depression that does not rise to the diagnosis of a major depressive disorder. This has been termed sub-clinical depression, and the name fits – the feelings of sadness and melancholy that don’t interfere with the ability to sleep, eat, work and otherwise function normally.

Sub-clinical depression does however adversely affect one’s quality of life and often leads individuals to seek care from primary care providers. That treatment usually comes in the form of medication, which may or may not manage the symptoms but likely is not addressing the cause. This is where I take some liberties and draw on my personal and clinical experience over the years, as well as research findings and common sense to state that one frequent cause of sub-clinical depression – and maybe the primary cause – is lack of exercise.

Let me work backwards to justify this assertion.

Health professionals and specialists in the treatment of depression universally recommend regular exercise as an effective modality in the management of depressive symptoms. They do this because exercise has the following effects that help to moderate depression:

  • Increased core body temperature following exercise increases temperature in certain areas of the brain, leading to relaxation.
  • Endorphin release creates an overall sense of well-being – the “runner’s high.”
  • Increased production of brain neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine) that are diminished in depression.
  • Physical activity distracts one from worries and depressing thoughts.
  • Exercise builds confidence.

What my instinct and experience tells me is that regular exercise is necessary for adequate production of all of these chemicals and effects. So if you are not exercising regularly, then you are not producing them and are probably sub-clinically depressed. This opinion is not without the underpinning of research.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine drew a connection between reduced physical activity and the increased likelihood of experiencing symptoms of depression. If lack of exercise over time leaves one in a state of sub-clinical depression, they are likely to affect behaviors that perpetuate that depression, including:

  • Craving and eating “comfort foods,” which promote depressive symptoms.
  • Feeling overstressed.
  • Lethargy, feeling tired, disinterest in physical activity.
  • Irritability.
  • Feeling like every day is a struggle; hopelessness.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? Lack of exercise creates the physical, chemical and psychological environment in the body that leads to depression.

And the depressive symptoms and activities create chemical and psychological alterations that reduce interest in exercise and increase the tendency to eat and act in ways that promote depressive symptoms. It can become a self-perpetuating cycle that can only be broken by decisive action. And, the first, best, and simplest action to take is exercise.

Moreover, since sub-clinical depression increases the likelihood of suffering a major depressive illness, an ounce of prevention is absolutely worth that pound of cure. Do like the “Godfather of Soul” suggests – “get on up,” get moving, and take the first step in beating back or, hopefully, preventing this common, debilitating illness., Causes of Depression, Retrieved August 18, 2014, WebMD, 2009., Sitting, Lack Of Exercise Linked With Symptoms Of Depression In New Study, Retrieved August 18, 2014,, Inc., 2014., Depression (major depressive disorder), Mayo Clinic Staff, Retrieved August 18, 2014, MFMER, 2014., Feeling Generally Dissatisfied and “Not Happy”? How to Nip Subclinical Depression in the Bud, Dr. Mercola, Retrieved August 18, 2014,, 2014., Subclinical depression: a clinically relevant condition?, Cuijpers, P, Smit, F, Tijdschr Psychiatr. 2008:50(8):519-28, Retrieved August 18, 2014, National Library of Medicine, 2014.

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