Illustration: Jaedoo Lee

Exercise Is Medicine

What Exercise Can — and Can’t — Do for Your Mental Health

The science says it works, but anyone who’s been depressed can tell you it’s not as simple as just going for a run

Elemental
Published in
8 min readJan 8, 2020

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This story is part of Exercise Is Medicine, a special report from Elemental that covers the incredible healing benefits of exercise, why doctors are prescribing workouts, the science of exercise for depression, and expert-designed exercises anyone can do.

SStudy after study shows that exercise can both prevent and treat symptoms of depression. It works in people young and old, physically healthy and chronically ill. Exercise even protects against depression in people who have genes that predispose them to the disorder.

Walking, running, cycling, yoga, weight lifting — any movement at any intensity is advantageous. And while many people see improvements in mood immediately following a workout, experts say the real benefits come from maintaining a regimen long-term.

As a result, some doctors and therapists are starting to prescribe exercise to their patients as a treatment option that studies show is as effective as antidepressants but without any of the side effects.

“I think it’s been increasingly recognized that depression can be effectively treated with exercise,” says James Blumenthal, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. “It seems that more physicians are prescribing exercise not just for their patients’ physical health, [but] their mental health as well.”

What ultimately worked for me was a good therapist, antidepressant drugs, and finishing my PhD, not more time lifting weights.

But exercise isn’t a panacea, and plenty of people who exercise get depressed — myself included.

In graduate school, I worked out the recommended three to five days a week for 60 minutes at a time — in part because, as a psychology student, I knew the research showing exercise’s mental health benefits. And yet, I was still depressed. I was depressed while I was playing on my university’s basketball team, and I…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental