September 2013

Exercise May Reduce Depression Symptoms

Exercise may reduce symptoms of depression, but may be no more effective than conventional pharmacological or psychological treatments, according to a recent study.

Depression or depressive disorder is an illness that involves the body, mood, and thoughts. Depression is considered a mood disorder. Imbalances in three neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), including serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, are linked to depression. Depression affects the way a person eats and sleeps, the way one feels about oneself, and the way one thinks about life situations. Unlike normal emotional experiences of sadness, loss, or passing mood states, depressive disorders are persistent and can significantly interfere with an individual's thoughts, behavior, mood, activity and physical health.

In a recent study, researchers conducted a comprehensive literature search to evaluate the potential benefits of exercise for depression when compared to no treatment, psychological treatment, pharmacological treatment, or another active treatment in adults.

Thirty-nine studies evaluating 2,326 participants were ultimately identified for inclusion. Of these studies, 35 trials including 1,356 participants assessed the effects of exercise compared to no treatment. The researchers found that exercise was moderately effective when compared to placebo. Seven trials reviewed the effects of exercise compared to psychological therapy, and four evaluated exercise compared to pharmacological treatments. Significant differences between both treatments and exercise were lacking.

The authors concluded that exercise may be a moderately effective treatment for depression, but no more effective than conventional psychological or pharmacological treatments. However, the authors noted that these findings may be significant for people who prefer alternative treatments. Additional research is warranted to further understand these findings.

In addition to exercise, St. John's wort has been extensively studied in Europe over the last two decades, with more recent research in the United States. Short-term studies (1-3 months) suggest that St. John's wort is more effective than placebo (sugar pill), and equally effective as tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) in the treatment of mild-to-moderate major depression. Comparisons to the more commonly prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, such as fluoxetine (Prozac®) or sertraline (Zoloft®), are more limited. However, other data suggest that St. John's wort may be just as effective as SSRIs with fewer side effects. Safety concerns exist as with most conventional and complementary therapies.

For more information about integrative therapies for depression, please visit Natural Standard's Comparative Effectiveness Database.

To comment on this story, please visit Natural Standard's blog.


  1. Cooney GM, Dwan K, Greig CA, et al. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Sep 12;9:CD004366. 
  2. Natural Standard: The Authority on Integrative Medicine. 

The information in this brief report is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions. Copyright © 2024 NatMed. Commercial distribution or reproduction prohibited. NatMed is the leading provider of high-quality, evidence-based, clinically-relevant information on natural medicine, dietary supplements, herbs, vitamins, minerals, functional foods, diets, complementary practices, CAM modalities, exercises and medical conditions. Monograph sections include interactions with herbs, drugs, foods and labs, contraindications, depletions, dosing, toxicology, adverse effects, pregnancy and lactation data, synonyms, safety and effectiveness.