Depression and Physical Activity

When Jimmy was 23 he went through a period where he felt so down, he stopped enjoying things he used to love. He also had trouble sleeping, no appetite, zero energy, and a hard time concentrating on work. He was experiencing his first major depressive episode. Since then, he’s gotten help from his doctor and therapist and is able to manage it. But every so often he still has periods that make it hard to go about his daily routine.

Depression Is Not Uncommon

It might surprise you to know that one in five adults will experience a major depressive episode in their lifetime. And this number is even higher for those with persistent pain. Just as there is a relationship between pain and depression, there is a relationship between physical inactivity and depression, too. Those that are depressed tend to be less active than non-depressed individuals. And inactivity can further contribute to depression.

What Can You Do?

The good news is that there are steps you can take to break this cycle of events. Mental health is complicated and unique to each individual. And while there is no “cure-all mood boost,” increasing physical activity can help reduce symptoms of depression and even prevent clinical depression.

Exercising with depression is not easy. This is partly due to lower levels of dopamine and serotonin, chemicals in the body that influence mood. Dopamine is released before and during activities we enjoy, such as taking a coffee break with friends or playing in the park with family. Dopamine reinforces behavior, encouraging you to seek out activities that cause a dopamine release. But depression can hinder dopamine release so you don’t enjoy activities as much. This makes activities that require more effort like exercise even more challenging, even if it’s something you used to look forward to. Plus low levels of serotonin can cause anxiety around exercise.

We want to help you get ahead of this and focus on small steps you can take to get more movement and help yourself feel better (mentally and physically) when you’re not feeling up for exercise.

  • Focus on low-intensity activity or a quick movement session. The idea of exercise can feel overwhelming, but you don’t need a long sweat session to see improvements in mood. Remember that every bit of movement helps. Aim for activity that feels doable, such as a short walk or stretching session.

  • Pair your movement with an activity you enjoy, such as watching your favorite show or listening to a favorite podcast or music. As an extra incentive, you can save that favorite activity so that you enjoy it only when you’re exercising.

  • Get creative. Turn on some music to dance to, vacuum your home as quickly as you can, find an exercise video online that looks interesting, or check out an in-person exercise class in your area. With so many different ways to be active, it is worth exploring to find something you enjoy.

  • Reframe. Movement is medicine and our bodies crave physical activity. If exercise feels like a chore, try reframing movement as something that is going to make you feel better because you’re giving your body what it needs to truly thrive.

  • Make it social. Maybe you have a friend, family member, or spouse that is also interested in more movement. Loved ones can provide great company and non-judgemental accountability. Even a pet can be a good companion!

Above all, show yourself kindness and compassion. Do what you can to incorporate some movement into your day for joint health and a boost in mood. But don’t be discouraged when you have a bad day and aren't able to be active. It’s easy for negative self-talk to creep in and it helps to be aware of it. Make the decision ahead of time to use that opportunity to reflect, recover, and try again tomorrow.

Key Takeaways

  1. Clinical depression is a serious health issue that affects many people, especially those with persistent pain.

  2. Even though depression makes it difficult to exercise, finding ways to incorporate movement into your day will help reduce depressive symptoms.

  3. Having a plan in place and knowing what works for you ahead of time can make exercising less overwhelming and challenging.


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  2. Surah, A., Baranidharan, G., & Morley, S. (2014). Chronic pain and depression. Continuing Education in Anaesthesia, Critical Care and Pain, 14(2), 85-89. doi: 10.1002/msj.20094

  3. Choi, K. W., Chen, C. Y., Stein, M. B., Klimentidis, Y. C., Wang, M. J., Koenen, K. C., & Smoller, J. W. (2018). Testing causal bidirectional influences between physical activity and depression using Mendelian randomization. doi: 10.1101/364232.

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