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Why Exercise Isn’t Always the Answer to Depression

woman in grass

I’m a firm believer in the power of exercise in helping to deal with stress. I know it’s a powerful tool because it works for me — I struggle with Generalized Anxiety Disorder* and have dealt with depression, and my more difficult periods can be precisely tied to times when I’ve slacked off on working out. It’s a bit of a chicken/egg situation, for sure, but each has a direct and palpable influence on the other.

However, a study in the official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine that came out last year states that exercise might not be the depression-slaying silver bullet many of us have thought it to be.

The study focused on 50 varsity swimmers (28 men and 22 women) based at two Canadian universities who were competing to represent Canada internationally, and looked at whether the swimmers suffered from depression and, if so, how closely tied their depression was to a bad performance. Turns out, these kids were fairly prone to depression and, within the top 25 percent of the elite swimmers, the prevalence of depression doubled.

The study stated: “The findings suggest that the prevalence of depression among elite athletes is higher than what has been previously reported in the literature. Being ranked among the very elite athletes is related to an increase in susceptibility to depression, particularly in relation to a failed performance. Given these findings, it is important to consider the mental health of athletes and have appropriate support services in place.”

So, what does that mean for me and others who consider themselves athletes, but not exactly elite? Psychologist Kyle Davies tackled this subject with what I think are some pretty smart points.

In a nutshell, he explains that stress is a really huge concept to define narrowly — yes, you can experience it in the typical ways, but your body can also be in a state of stress without you realizing it. So, adjusting your thoughts or just trying to calm down doesn’t necessarily fix the problem, which may be an emotional imbalance or build up of toxic emotions. If you have an emotional imbalance, especially if it’s exacerbated by issues regarding your athletic abilities or performance, exercise is probably not going to fix things.

Bottom line, he says, is that if you’ve got an athletic goal of any sort, awesome! Go for it. But if you’re experiencing depression or anxiety or anything symptoms that seem to be unexplained, don’t just assume that exercise will fix it. Take care of your body and your mind.

Have you dealt with depression or anxiety and noticed exercise’s effect on your symptoms? I’d love to hear your story below, and I’m sure the rest of our readers would, too! —Kristen

*I am not a special snowflake by any means and I am definitely not seeking pity here — lots of people deal with GAD and mine is currently manageable without medication (although this will probably make it clear why I’ve been trying to commit to meditation — and why I find it so, so difficult). Some people have much more severe cases and do require medication or more outside help, and that is normal and okay. I’m only sharing this here because I think it’s important to note the positive effect exercise has on my personal struggle, and while I’m happy to share these findings, I do not want to discourage someone suffering from anxiety or depression from hitting the gym if it’s helpful to them. And if you or someone you know needs help, do not be afraid to reach out. Just want to read more about it without getting all medical? This might be a good place to start.

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12 Comments
  1. Missy says:

    I have been dealing with depression and anxiety for 9 years now. I do use medication to control the symptoms. I am also overweight, and haven’t been in shape in a long time. Heart disease runs rampant through my family, and I work for a health-related non-profit and see the effects of obesity and inactivity every day. That said, it was its effect on my mental health, rather than my physical health, that encouraged me to implement a regular exercise program. I’ve had more depressive episodes and panic attacks in the past 2 years than ever before, but I have been exercising pretty regularly over the last 4 months, and I am feeling 400% better. They can do all the studies they want, but I know what works for me. Of course, I don’t have the pressure to perform that an elite athlete has – I guess I just don’t see how that study relates to the average active person.

  2. Michelle says:

    I have found that exercise does help with depression, but it isn’t the end all be all for me. It helps me with confidence, and definitely helps me keep me head above water on not so great days. I don’t feel cured and I could not quit therapy, but I feel better than if I was inactive.

  3. Miranda says:

    Thank you so much for blogging about this! I’m no where near an elite athlete, but I have also struggled with depression and anxiety. Exercising does help some, but it’s definitely a cure all. It was so difficult because people kept telling me to be more active, but I was already devoting an hour a day to exercise and it still wasn’t getting me out of the “funk”. It’s hard for others to understand that haven’t been there. Thank you so much for bringing this difficult issue to light!

  4. Tish says:

    I can see why this discussion is so important…because if you are suffering from depression (which I have) and you’re waiting for the happy endorphins to fix it and it doesn’t you feel almost more panicked and worse off. For those individuals who don’t benefit from working out this is magic talk. They’re not alone. They’re not weird. Someone gets it and there are other ways of feeling better. BOOM! Thank you for sharing! xoxo

  5. Deb says:

    Exercise helps, but it doesn’t completely get rid of anxiety and/or depression. For me, medication is also necessary to keep me feeling my best. I use to think I could fix it thru exercise, but truthfully I would have to exercise 24 hours a day to keep the anxiety/depression at bay with no medication.

  6. Katie says:

    I suffer from bipolar disorder and actually had some really negative experiences attending the gym I was going to. All I wanted to do was get in a light workout that would get some endorphins pumping but the instructors there were all about going hard and becoming a warrior woman. One also helpfully told me that they could assist me with drawing up a weight loss plan (thanks but no thanks, but the reminder that I’m fat was a treat!)
    I’ve since switched to yoga and just taking walks and find that works much better for me.

  7. Depression says:

    I have always been a firm believer in exercise being the best non-medical solution to depression. I think that, when done regularly, it can be very beneficial and help people see themselves in a different light. It may not work for all, but the benefits of regular exercise can help many depression sufferers.

  8. Jessica V says:

    I’m really glad (and proud of you) for writing this. There are few things more disheartening than working your butt off, drinking juice, getting sunlight or vitamin D or whatever else is supposed to cure you, and still finding yourself in a lump at the bottom of the floor. It feeds into the very dangerous idea that all people can will themselves or action themselves out of mental illness, and when it fails it just feeds into that awful negative self-talk feedback loop. I failed yet again. Might as well give up. Some people need medication, end of story, some people respond to other things.

    Being appropriately treated for depression has allowed me the energy to attack an exercise regimen and make myself healthier, which makes me happier, but I really need both.

  9. Lisa says:

    I applaud all of you who are doing whatever you do to deal with your depression. There are, obviously, no easy answers. Everyone has different degrees of anxiety and depression and there is no one size fits all cure. The fact that exercise can help, not only with anxiety and depression but with your overall health, should at least make you consider using it as a tool in your overall life plan. If nothing else it will help you have a more healthy body

  10. katie says:

    I’ve been dealing with low level anxiety my whole life and never recognized it, and ive had more acute GAD since I moved out of state on my own for school. I find that if I don’t exercise regularly I’m incapable of enjoying my down time – I just feel anxious and edgy. But if I work out every other day or so, I’m way more my old upbeat, optimistic self. I think exercise helps me feel in control of something, when everything else feels so overwhelming. It’s also a social outlet sometimes, when I go to classes or ride bikes with my roommate, or a time that I can spend solitary and enjoy my own company, which is something I’m relearning to do. Sometimes I still just feel miserable, but less than I would otherwise, and that’s something for sure.

  11. Vickie says:

    Exercise is definitely a mood booster but it’s important to see it as part of an overall ‘antidepressant’ lifestyle. A brisk walk for 30 minutes three times a week should see your mood lifting. If you enjoy it, go four times a week. It’s not necessary to do ultra-vigorous gym workouts and in fact, it’s important to avoid getting too obsessive about it. Exercise is not about avoiding feeling depressed. Regular physical activity each week – along with a brain-healthy diet, social connection, meaningful work…it’s all part of feeling better.

  12. neha says:

    definitely helps me keep me head above water on not so great days. I don’t feel cured and I could not quit therapy, but I feel better than if I was inactive.