The Powerful role of exercise in combatting depression

Written by: Kyle Riley, BSc (hons) Ex Sci, Therapy Co-Founder

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a global challenge, impacting life satisfaction more than more than debt, divorce, and diabetes and worsening associated health conditions including heart disease, anxiety, and cancer. Existing treatments like drugs and psychotherapy, while effective for some, are not for others, highlighting the need for additional evidence-based interventions.

Exercise can be a potential compliment or alternative to traditional treatments for MDD, offering not only mental health benefits, but improvements in physical and cognitive well-being. Over the years the research has been promising, and various psychological associations around the world now endorse exercise in clinical guidelines. However, these recommendations often lack clarity regarding the optimal exercise dose and modality.

A recent study in the British Journal of Medicine has delved deeper into this area of mental health, specifically exploring the effectiveness of exercise in treating major depressive disorder. The study aimed to pinpoint the type of exercise, comparing its impact with traditional treatments like psychotherapy and antidepressants. Below is an overview of what the study found.

exercise and depression

Exercise as a Treatment

The research reviewed various exercise modalities, ranging from dance and walking to yoga and strength training. The findings shown that certain exercises provided significant reductions in depression compared to active controls (standard treatments or interventions that are not the focus of the study).

Stars of the Show

  • Dance: Large reductions in depression were observed, although a smaller sample size it is definitely worth a mention!
  • Walking or Jogging: Demonstrated moderate reductions, making this simple and easy to access exercise modality an absolute game-changer.
  • Yoga, Strength Training, Mixed Aerobic Exercises, Tai Chi or Qigong: All displayed moderate reductions. Meaning there is a wide variety of exercise modalities to choose from. Finding something you enjoy will mean regular participation and increased benefit!

Combining Forces

The study also explored combining exercise with other treatments, such as SSRIs or psychotherapy. These combinations yielded moderate, clinically meaningful effects, emphasising the potential power when exercise is integrated into a comprehensive treatment plan.

Intensity Matters

One key finding from the research is the impact of exercise intensity. Moderate reductions in depression were proportional to the intensity prescribed. In simpler terms, breaking a sweat and challenging yourself during physical activity will provide more significant benefits for mental health. 

Intensity in Action

  • Dance, Jogging, and Yoga: When performed with intensity, showed larger reductions in depression.
  • Strength Training: Not only effective but also had lower participant dropout rates, again finding what you are likely to stick to long term matters!
For a more detailed look at some of the specific intensity guidelines recommended for various mental health conditions, you can check out a previous blog post I put together called ‘move for your mental health’ here.

Ranking the Champions

Certain exercises, like dance, exercise combined with SSRIs, and jogging, emerged as top performers. This demonstrates the importance of tailoring exercise interventions based on individual preferences and needs, and importantly, how exercise combined with current interventions such as cognitive bejavioural therapy and SSRIs can provide further benefit to an existing treatment plan.

Exercise at Therapy

Exercise isn’t just about burning calories; it’s a potent tool in the fight against depression. The research suggests that the type of exercise matters, but intensity is the magic ingredient. Whether you find solace in the rhythm of dance, the meditative flow of yoga, or the strength-building realms of resistance training, pushing your limits could be the key to unlocking the full mental health benefits. And the great thing is, with a supportive community and rock-star instructors backing you every step of the way, you can access all of these top performing exercise modalities under one roof at Therapy Fitness.


Want to move to the beat of the music dancing on a bike? Check out our Rhythm Cycle classes, it’s a spin class like no other. 


Looking to build strength and resilience in body and mind? Try our RunLift classes, the perfect combination of running and strength training (you can even choose to just Lift!).


Try a fusion of it all in our Connect Space:

  • Connect Yang – A Hot Pilates Fusion Class combining movement with music and mindfulness
  • Connect Yin – A Hot Yoga Fusion class combining flows with deep stretching and meditation
  • Connect Heal – A Fusion of Breathwork and Sound Healing, perfect to help destress and regulate the nervous system. 

In a world where mental well-being is paramount, lets turn up the music, move together and embrace the transformative power of exercise.

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Effect of exercise for depression: systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials

BMJ 2024; 384 doi: (Published 14 February 2024)