The Perfect Natural Antidepressant: Exercise

Working out not only does a body good, but it’s a natural antidepressant that makes an impact on your mood and mental state. Plus: 5 tips on getting started.

natural antidepressant

The best way to beat the blues just might be exercise—regular exercise that you work into a routine.

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Wondering how to boost your mood with a natural antidepressant? The best starting point is regular exercise. Physical activity releases endorphins, which are brain chemicals that help you feel good while also promoting nerve cell growth, as noted in the University Health News report Overcoming Depression.

Research has found that exercising for as little as 30 minutes per day can be an effective natural antidepressant. A number of studies have focused on aerobic exercise but some have shown that resistance training can also work well.

Get Natural Antidepressant Help in 30 Minutes

Regardless of which type of exercise you pursue, consistency and intensity are important. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, adults should do at least 150 minutes (two and a half hours) a week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.

Not only is exercise a natural antidepressant, it also may protect you from depression or having depressive episode. A report supported in part by the National Institutes of Health details how exercise can work as a natural antidepressant as well as delving into the optimal amounts of exercise needed.

“Observational studies suggest that active people are less likely to be depressed, and interventional studies suggest that exercise is beneficial in reducing depression,” the report concludes. “It appears that even modest levels of exercise are associated with improvements in depression, and while most studies to date have focused on aerobic exercise, several studies also have found evidence that resistance training also may be effective.”

Exercise v. Medication

In a telling study at Duke University, researchers compared exercise and medication. Study participants included 156 older adults with major depressive disorder (MDD) split into three groups. One group did aerobic exercise three times per week, the second took sertraline (Zoloft), and the third group combined exercise and sertraline.

After 16 weeks, there was no difference in the level of depression among the groups, suggesting that both medication and exercise were equally effective. But after 10 months, the exercise-only group showed lower rates of depression relapse compared to the other groups.

Also, those who exercised during the 10-month follow-up period were 50 percent less likely to be depressed. The data suggests therefore that exercise can be a natural antidepressant in patients with MDD.

Duration, Frequency, and Intensity of Exercise

Research has shown a range of results with respect to how often and how intense exercise should be in order to work as an effective natural antidepressant. One study found that high-intensity exercise is most effective, although those who exercised less intensively also showed some modest benefits. In the Duke study mentioned above, researchers reported that three aerobic sessions per week of 30 to 45 minutes was enough to reduce depression.

In general, elevating your heart rate is what matters. If you can talk but not sing while you are exercising, you are working in a moderate aerobic zone. Do that for 30 to 45 minutes at least three days a week to help keep depression at bay.

How to Stay Motivated to Exercise

For most people, getting started with exercise is often the hardest part. Not having enough time is also a common hurdle. If you can’t exercise for an hour, try 10-minute bursts of exercise throughout the day. To stay consistent, ask a friend or spouse to work out with you. For some people, a fitness-related fundraiser can be a powerful motivator.

The Duke study, published in the American College of Sports Medicine Health Fitness Journal, offers “Seven Tips for Highly Effective Exercises” tips; click here to view. See also our sidebar below.



The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a list of useful tips (adapted here) on how to get motivated to become physically active—and how to stay motivated.

  1. Pick an activity you enjoy. If you do not like the exercise you are doing, it is hard to keep it up. List the activities you would like to do, like walking, joining a sports league, exercising with a video, dancing, biking, or taking a class at a fitness or community center. If you are already active, what types of activity can you add? Select an activity that sounds like fun and try it out.
  2. Start slow and add a little at a time. If you are not active now, the idea of doing 30 to 60 minutes of activity each day may seem like too much at first. Start by being active 10 minutes on 5 days each week. Every few weeks, add 5 to 10 minutes until you are getting at least 30 minutes of activity most days.
  3. Set a goal, make a plan, and add it to your calendar. Set short-term goals that are specific and that you can track. For example, instead of saying “I’m going to be more active this week,” set a goal of walking 30 minutes a day, three days a week.
  4. Decide on the days and times you could do the activity, such as first thing in the morning, during lunch break from work, after dinner, or on Saturday afternoon. Look at your calendar or planner to find the days and times that work best, and commit to those plans.
  5. Overcome the common physical activity roadblocks. Starting a physical activity program and sticking with it may be easier than you think. Here are some ideas on how to overcome your roadblocks to physical activity.
    • No time? If work, family, and other demands make it hard for you to be active, try doing 10 minutes of exercise at a time. Spread these bursts of activity out throughout the day. Add a daily 15-minute walk during your lunch break or after dinner. If your schedule allows and you can do so safely near your home or work, taking a walk may help you clear your head.
    • Low motivation or interest? Is it hard to get moving? Does working out seem boring or like a chore? Switch it up; try a new activity each day like dancing or planting a garden to find out what you enjoy most. Make it social; involve your family and friends in physical activity to have fun, spend quality time together, and stay on track. Use videos. Work out to fitness videos or DVDs. Check out a different DVD from the library each week for variety. And enlist support. Who will remind you to get off the couch and help you reach your goals? List the people—your partner, brother, sister, parent, kids, or friends—who can support your efforts to be physically active. Give them ideas about how they can help, like praising your efforts, watching your kids, or working out with you.
    • Bad weather? Wear the right gear: A rain jacket, sunhat and sunscreen, or winter clothes will help you beat the weather. Find a place to exercise indoors: Walk in a mall when the weather is bad. Your local community center may offer low-cost options.
    • Tight budget? Working out does not have to cost a lot of money to help you meet your goals. Check out your local recreation or community center. These centers may cost less than other gyms, fitness centers, or health clubs. Find one that lets you pay only for the months or classes you want, instead of the whole year. Choose physical activities that do not require any special gear. Walking requires a pair of sturdy shoes. To dance, just turn on some music.

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JoAnn Milivojevic

JoAnn Milivojevic became the executive editor of UCLA Health’s Healthy Years in 2015 and has written numerous articles featuring some of the most preeminent and passionate scientists, researchers, physicians, and … Read More

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