Why movement is more suited to people with depression – The View From an Expert

Movement is one of the most effective ways to improve your mood, even and especially if you have depression.

Me in the morning, when I’m depressed: flat, lethargic and grumpy. Overly-sensitive, easily reacting to a small trigger. An overwhelming sense of apathy, interspersed with moments of rage or deep sadness. Things feel really hard.

Me later that afternoon: energized, motivated and productive. Calm and peaceful in my own mind, focusing on what needs to get done (work). Still pretty sensitive, but with enough mindful presence to not yell at my loved ones.

What changed? I spent half an hour running. And when I say running, what I really mean is shuffling along at a slow jog. It’s not hard core.

Movement is Medicine

Movement is one of the most effective ways to improve your mood, even and especially if you have depression. Numerous studies have shown exercise to be as effective, or even more effective than, anti-depressant medication*. It also happens to be free, and its major side effects are all positives, (such as decreased blood pressure, weight maintenance, improved strength, better sleep, and more).

Chances are, if you read much on the Internet, you’ve seen these kind of claims about exercise before.  So why aren’t more doctors prescribing movement for peoples with depression, and why aren’t more people doing it?

Well – getting out and going for a run is pretty difficult for the average person who doesn’t have depression. With almost half the population not getting enough exercise, even with all their (supposedly) functioning neural and cognitive systems, what hope does someone who has depression have?

My answer? The beauty of instant gratification.

Running For Your Mood

When the general population is trying to maintain a regular movement program, they are usually doing so for reasons that exist in the future, such as: to avoid or manage heart disease, to lose or gain weight, to improve strength, to train for a marathon, to get a bikini body – none of these things happen the very first time you exercise.

This means you need to remain committed to exercising even while you can’t see immediate progress towards your goal, which is hard and required will power.

But when you commit to moving to improve your mood? The very first time you get moving, you feel better.

I’ve gotten to the point where when I start to feel really down, I actually crave exercise. I know that it gives my brain some relief from ruminative thinking (thinking repetitive, unhappy thoughts). I know it gives me energy and motivation. I know I will feel better, straight away. So feeling lethargic, unmotivated and crappy, rather than being a reason to stay on the couch, actually becomes the very reason to get off the couch.

Taking note of what your mood is before and after exercise can really help to prove this to you in the long run. Just a simple score out of ten, where zero is ‘I feel the worst I’ve ever felt’ and ten is ‘I feel amazing’ can give you a nice visual about how exercise improves your mood.


If would need some help to get your running journey started, try downloading the free Nike Running Pack which can provide you with the Mindful Running Pack. The guided runs they provide help you focus on your breathing, effort and your own thoughts. Download it here.

If you struggle to get going, it can also be really helpful to involve a family member or an Accredited Exercise Physiologist who can help you make a plan and set some goals. The important thing is to reframe your perspective so exercise doesn’t become something that you do when you have the energy and motivation, but something that you do in order to get the energy and the motivation.


* Please note – I am not suggesting you stop any medication. Always work with a health professional when making changes to your medications.


Louise is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) specialising in mental health.


Blumenthal, J. A., Babyak, M. A., Murali Doraiswamy, P., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B. M., Barbour, K. A., … Sherwood, A. (2007). Exercise and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(7), 587–596. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e318148c19a
Carek, P.J., Laibstain, S. E., and Carek, S. M. (2011) Exercise for the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety Int J Psychiatry Med January  41(1), 15-28, doi:10.2190/PM.41.1.c
Cooney GM, Dwan K, Greig CA, Lawlor DA, Rimer J, Waugh FR, McMurdo M, Mead GE. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2013) Issue 9. Art. No.: CD004366. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub6.