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Finding the Best Depression Treatment

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Exercise for Depression: A Guide to the Best Activities

Medically Reviewed By Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW

Research suggests that physical activity can help improve depression. The best exercise for depression can depend on your mood and needs. Options include walking, yoga, HIIT, and weightlifting. Alongside medical care, physical activity can be very beneficial for relieving depression symptoms.

You can tailor most activities to your level and mood for a cheap, simple treatment option.

Read on to learn more about exercise for depression, including its benefits and the 10 best activities.

How can exercise help with depression?

Three young adults run side by side in a green park.
Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

Research suggests that physical activity can be effective for reducing symptoms of depression.

A 2023 review of studies of 128,119 participants concludes that physical activity is highly beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress. From this evidence, the reviewers recommend physical activity as a key treatment for these conditions.

Experts say Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source that exercise:

  • increases serotonin levels, linking to happiness, calmness, and focus
  • improves relaxation
  • releases endorphins, chemicals that lead to positive mood and feelings of well-being
  • distracts you from worries and negative thoughts
  • boosts feelings of self-esteem, control, or capability

However, more research is needed to confirm these results and clarify the link between exercise and depression.

1. Yoga

A 2024 review Trusted Source BMJ Peer reviewed journal Go to source of 218 studies concludes that yoga is one of the most effective physical activities for treating depression.

The benefits of yoga include:

  • adaptability, as you can tailor intensity and duration to your mood and capabilities
  • addressing physical and emotional health at the same time
  • incorporating deep breathing and meditation, which may also reduce Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source depression, stress, and anxiety

You can start yoga at home with little to no equipment.

Seek help from a professional to avoid injury

You can do many physical activities at home starting from a beginner level. If possible, start by working with a licensed physical trainer or expert to reduce the risk of injury. It may be enough to have just one or two sessions to learn safe form.

Also, use dynamic stretches Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , or stretches that involve movement, before starting an activity. After finishing an activity, use static cooldown stretches Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , whereby you hold a position still for several seconds.

2. Walking

According to the 2024 review Trusted Source BMJ Peer reviewed journal Go to source above, walking is another one of the most effective physical activities for treating depression.

Walking may be particularly helpful for depression, as you can:

  • tailor the level or duration to your fitness and mood
  • easily make gradual increases in intensity, such as walking faster or for longer
  • get outside and have a change of scenery
  • do it with no special equipment
  • make it a social activity by walking with friends or family

Tailoring exercise to your condition is still beneficial

A 2022 review of studies reports that getting the recommended amount of weekly aerobic exercise links to a 25% lower risk Trusted Source JAMA Peer reviewed journal Go to source of depression. The recommended amount is about 2.5 hours Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source of brisk walking per week.

Depression symptoms, such as fatigue or apathy, can make it hard to keep up with physical activity.

However, starting at a manageable level and gradually progressing can have benefits. The same review of studies notes that getting half the recommended amount of weekly aerobic activity still lowered depression risk by 18%.

If high intensity, outdoor, or social activities feel too much, try taking a 15-minute walk, practicing a few yoga poses, or jumping rope for 5 minutes each day.

3. Jogging or running

Researchers from the 2024 review Trusted Source BMJ Peer reviewed journal Go to source believe jogging to be another of the most effective physical activities for depression.

Running may boost mood Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source and improve mental health outcomes whether it is high or low intensity. Researchers see benefits across different types of running, including:

  • running on a treadmill
  • running with others
  • running outdoors
  • running on a track

Going for one-off runs may also lead to short-term boosts in mental health.

4. Strength training

Strength training is another physical activity that may be particularly effective Trusted Source BMJ Peer reviewed journal Go to source for depression.

Activities that count as strength training include:

  • weightlifting
  • activities that include weights, such as walking with weights
  • weighted yoga or Pilates
  • bodyweight exercises, such as squats or pushups
  • resistance band exercises

5. High intensity interval training (HIIT)

HIIT involves performing high intensity activities for multiple short intervals, with several minutes of rest in between. With HIIT, the aim is to get your heart rate up to at least 80% of its maximum rate.

Some research suggests HIIT may be more beneficial in reducing depression than moderate intensity exercises. More studies are needed to confirm this.

You can do HIIT in classes or groups or at home with online videos, depending on your comfort level.

Read more about HIIT, including its benefits, safety, and sample workouts.

6. Biking

Cycling may help boost mood and distract from negative thoughts.

A 2016 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source of depression in people undergoing hemodialysis finds that riding a bike long term reduced depression severity and improved quality of life.

7. Jumping rope

Jumping rope is a high intensity activity you can do at home and with little equipment.

A 2021 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source concludes that aerobic exercise, including jumping rope, improves depression and has similar effects to clinical treatments. The study also states that high intensity exercise is better than moderate intensity exercise for supporting daily function.

8. Postural exercises

A 2022 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source notes that certain postures at work may link to depression. These include:

  • tiring or painful positions
  • postures needed to lift or move people
  • standing or sitting without moving
  • postures requiring repetitive arm or hand movements

Researchers from the study note that having an upright posture can lower depression by improving breathing.

A 2017 study also reports that adopting an upright posture has benefits. These include reducing fatigue, lowering self-focus, and increasing positive expression in people with mild to moderate depression.

You can try practicing upright posture or exercises such as yoga and Pilates Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source .

Read more about healthy posture and posture correctors.

9. Group exercise

Physical activities that you can do in a group or with other people may help reduce symptoms of depression.

A 2021 study suggests belonging to groups that exercise together may protect against depression. One reason for this may be that social support can boost mood. Working out with others may also improve motivation and consistency.

Consider trying group classes, team sports, or exercising casually with a friend.

10. Breathing exercises

A 2023 trial Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source concludes that breathing exercises and mindfulness reduced scores for depression, anxiety, and stress in students. A 2023 review of studies Trusted Source International Journal of Obesity Peer reviewed journal Go to source also suggests that breathwork may help improve mental health.

However, more research is needed to confirm the results.

Read more about how to practice deep breathing.

Summary

Research suggests that physical activity is highly effective at improving depression.

The best exercise for depression is one that you find manageable, enjoyable, and are able to keep up with. Examples include walking, group activities, yoga, biking, and strength training.

Talk with a doctor if you have questions about physical activity or treating depression.

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Medical Reviewer: Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW
Last Review Date: 2024 Apr 15
View All Finding the Best Depression Treatment Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.