This Is How Much Exercise You Need to Help Prevent and Manage Depression

It's not a scary number!

women on bicycles: exercise to beat seasonal affective disorder
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Do shorter days and blustery temperatures make you feel down? It’s totally normal to experience the fall and winter blues. In fact, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mental health condition characterized by extended, recurring periods of major depression linked to seasonal changes, particularly the lack of natural light. Symptoms typically emerge in the late fall and early winter and subside in the spring. SAD, or seasonal depression, can include a whole bevy of negative symptoms, like difficulty sleeping, hopelessness, loss of interest, and low energy.

There are several strategies you can try to feel better (hello, light therapy, weighted blankets, and therapy apps). But tons of research has found that one of the best ways to lower your odds for developing depression, seasonal or otherwise, is to get some regular exercise. And the best news? You don’t need to spend hours toiling away at the gym every day—or start training for a triathlon—to ward off depression and protect your mental health. And this goes for any time of the year.

Exercise Is an Effective Tool for Reducing Depression Risk

A 2019 study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, found that individuals who engaged in recurring exercise each week were less likely to be diagnosed with depression, even in the face of high genetic risk for the disorder.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) recorded data from nearly 8,000 participants in the Partners Healthcare Biobank. After patients filled out a survey about their lifestyle habits (including physical activity), their health data over the next two years were analyzed in order to identify diagnoses related to depression. They also calculated genetic risk scores for each participant that reflected individual inherited risk for depression. Findings showed that people who were more physically active were less likely to develop depression than those who were not active, even after accounting for genetic risk. 

"Our findings strongly suggest that, when it comes to depression, genes are not destiny and that being physically active has the potential to neutralize the added risk of future episodes in individuals who are genetically vulnerable," said the study’s lead author, Karmel Choi, Ph.D., researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and lead author of the study.

And this all makes a lot of sense. “Moderate to high-intensity workouts can lead to an increase in endorphins that elevate our moods temporarily,” explains Eudene Harry, M.D., a board-certified medical director for Oasis Wellness and Rejuvenation Center in Orlando, Florida. “Research has also shown that consistent aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, which is associated with a reduced risk of depression.”

How Much Exercise You Need to Help Prevent Depression

So exactly how much physical activity does it take to reduce the risk of future incidents of depression? According to Choi and her research findings, exercising for about 35 minutes per day (or four hours and five minutes per week), is enough to lower your odds for experiencing a new incidence of depression. 

Overall, for each additional four-hour block of activity per week, individuals could see a 17 percent reduction in risk. This means that getting about double the above number—or one hour of exercise per day (or about eight hours total per week)—could even further reduce depression risk.

This also corresponds well with the current WHO-recommended guidelines for physical activity: 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (that's about 22 to 43 minutes a day)—or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week (about 11 to 22 minutes a day) for able-bodied adults. 

More recently, a 2022 JAMA Psychiatry published a systematic review and meta-analysis of 15 prospective studies, analyzing the relationship between exercise and depression risk. This review saw comparable conclusions that confirm and support Choi and her team’s findings: 

Compared to adults who did no physical activity, adults who did 4.4 hours of physical activity per week had an 18 percent lower risk of depression; and adults who did 8.8 hours of physical activity had a 25 percent lower risk of depression. (Also of note, increased exercise beyond 8.8 hours per week was associated with “diminishing potential benefits”—good to know you don’t need to overdo it!)

But what’s more, the JAMA review concluded that even a little bit of exercise is far better than none at all for your mood. “[R]elatively small doses of physical activity were associated with substantially lower risks of depression,” the abstract reports. “This systematic review… suggests significant mental health benefits from being physically active, even at levels below the public health recommendations.”

More specifically: If you can only carve out just two and a half hours total per week to move your body—equivalent to about 25 minutes a day of “brisk walking”—that’s still effective when it comes to fending off serious blues, especially if you’re starting from no activity at all. 

What's the Best Type of Exercise?

The Harvard researchers found that both high-intensity forms of aerobic activity (think: running, spinning/cycling, dancing, and exercise machines) and lower-intensity exercise (think: walking, yoga, and stretching) were equally effective at decreasing one's odds of depression. 

“The exercise that works is the type that you do on a consistent basis, so I suggest picking things that you enjoy," Dr. Harry says. "Whether it’s hiking, gardening, or biking, the key is to get your heart pumping. Social interaction also adds another thing to the equation to help fight depression, so activities like a fun dance class, hiking with friends, or a game of basketball can do wonders."

Bottom Line:

Heeding the latest research and recommendations, anywhere from a minimum of 25 minutes a day to a maximum of about 75 minutes a day of exercise can play a beneficial role in lowering your risk for depression and improving your mood.

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