Exercise for depression

By Jonathan Dugas

Those who regularly participate in physical activity and exercise praise its benefits.  Everyone experiences a slightly different combination, but generally they consist of improved mental and physical energy, lower stress, and sometimes better weight management (not necessarily weight loss, mind you).

So, it should come as no surprise to learn that many countries adopt an “exercise first” approach to mild depression, which has been shown to be as good as anti-depressants.  A recent article in Slate.com goes the extra mile, so to speak, in examining why we don’t leverage exercise more often as a first line of treatment for mental health. As I mentioned above, many countries explicitly make exercise the primary treatment a doctor should prescribe when an individual presents with depression.  Part of the reason for this is that many experts conclude that a lack of exercise can actually be the cause of the depression. Therefore, it follows that reversing that situation—replacing inactivity with physical activity—would also reverse the depression. However, even when inactivity is not the direct cause, many of those same experts will agree that exercise can still help most individuals who suffer from depression. If it doesn’t, or if it does not help enough, the treatment escalates to exercise together with medication, as opposed to medication in isolation without exercise.

The reasons we do not use exercise as a “step zero” treatment can be debated elsewhere. The workplace wellness industry receives more than its share of criticism—some warranted, others not so much. One criticism is that we focus too strongly on increasing physical activity, even if everyone agrees that as a nation we are incredibly sedentary. Yet, as Scott Douglas mentions in his Slate.com piece, “… in anecdotes and peer-reviewed surveys, once depressed people try exercise, they rate it the best treatment on the basis of perceived effectiveness to perceived burden (side effects, cost, etc.).”

Of course, we recognize that although exercise can be a powerful modifier of health risk, it is not the only solution, and nor should it be.  That is why Vitality members have access to a much wider range of options, all of which can contribute to a healthier lifestyle, but perhaps none in such a way as exercise can.


With a PhD in Exercise Physiology, Jonathan Dugas spends his days thinking about how we can help more people be more active.  With three Ironman finishes and 10 marathons and counting, he’ll see you out on the road.

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