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Depression is a term that doctors use to describe several different related disorders, including major depression, dysthymic depression and minor or mild depression, as well as less precisely defined conditions such as postpartum depression, psychotic depression, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Collectively, these conditions are also referred to as depressive disorders. Treatments for depression vary according to the specific disorder involved. For instance, doctors can typically reduce the effects of major depression with the help of a group of medications called antidepressants. However, the Mayo Clinic reports, in some cases, people with mild or minor depression don’t respond well to the use of antidepressant medications. For these people, participation in regular exercise can play an important role in effective treatment.

Understanding Mild Depression

All depressive disorders can produce symptoms that commonly include hopelessness, worthlessness, sadness, guilt, helplessness, loss of motivation, fatigue, insomnia or other sleep-related problems, appetite alteration, thoughts of suicide and behaviors that reflect suicidal thoughts. One of the main differences between these disorders is the intensity of the symptoms involved. Major depression produces ongoing symptoms severe enough to seriously interfere with your ability to get through life’s daily routines or find activities that bring pleasure or enjoyment. Dysthymic depression produces symptoms that are not quite as disruptive but last for years at a time.

As the name implies, mild or minor depression produces versions of depression symptoms that are considerably less disruptive than the versions associated with major or dysthymic depression; these symptoms may also last for shorter periods of time. However, lack of symptom severity does not translate into lack of potential seriousness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an untreated case of mild depression can significantly increase your chances for later development of major depression.

Exercise’s Effects

When you exercise regularly, you make several alterations in your internal environment that tend to decrease the severity of depression symptoms. First, exercise can increase your levels of a group of more than 20 different chemicals known collectively as endorphins, which circulate in your brain, spinal cord, and other parts of your body’s nervous system. In turn, the increased presence of these chemicals triggers effects that include pain relief, euphoria and an enhanced immune system response. Regular exercise also alters your immune system function by reducing the levels of certain chemicals in this system that tend to make depression symptoms more severe. In addition, exercise temporarily elevates your body temperature; in turn, this elevation can decrease emotional agitation and help improve your general mental state.

Gradually, regular exercise also improves your overall health. Generally speaking, heightened feelings of physical well-being and reduction or absence of the symptoms of chronic illness improve your mental outlook and decrease your depression risks. In addition to reducing or eliminating the effects of chronic health problems such as arthritis, diabetes, and high blood pressure, regular exercise can help you stop these conditions from appearing in the first place. Other mood-related effects of exercise participation include a diversion from the negative ways of thinking that often characterize depression; an improved sense of your capacity to solve your own problems; and an opportunity for the types of social interaction and social connectedness that often evade depression sufferers.

Types of Exercise

When some people hear the word “exercise,” they imagine complicated, time-consuming routines that promise a lot and end up providing very little. People with depression, in particular, may view exercise in this kind of negative light. However, the Mayo Clinic explains, exercise doesn’t have to involve drudgery or a rigid, unpleasant routine. While some people may prefer participation in relatively regimented activities such as sports, weightlifting, or aerobics, you can also increase your activity levels through simpler methods such as taking a casual walk in your own neighborhood, climbing stairs instead of using an elevator or escalator, walking to nearby stores, or cutting your own grass. You can also increase your exercise participation gradually, rather than jumping in all at once and inadvertently overwhelming your capacity for short-term change.

The most effective exercise routines for depression typically call for at least 30 minutes of activity on three to five separate days each week. However, you can still gain some benefit if you engage in as little as 10 or 15 minutes of activity on the same number of days.


In addition to its use in the treatment of mild or minor depression, exercise can also play a role in the treatment of more severe depressive disorders. However, at least in the short-term, that role is typically much smaller than the roles played by medication and psychotherapy. Medication and psychotherapy also commonly form a large part of effective treatment plans for mild or minor depression. While exercise has its place, you should never discontinue the use of any prescribed form of depression treatment without your doctor’s explicit advice and consent.

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