Beat the Blues with Exercise


I love running and riding my bike. Aside from the cardiovascular and metabolic benefits, exercise makes me feel good. Last week I highlighted the physiologic benefits of meditation on anxiety. Coincidentally,  my favorite biochemist Dr. Rhonda Patrick, released new content on ‘Exercise as a Treatment for Depression’. It’s good to remind ourselves the power these lifestyle interventions have on our physiology; just as meditation influences brain plasticity, so too does exercise on brain biochemistry. This week I highlight the growing evidence supporting exercise as an intervention for depression. 

When it comes to definitively saying something is true in medicine there has to be studies proving its effect. Exercise as a treatment and prevention to depression has sound supportive evidence. One study of interest, used a unique randomization technique to determine that genetics can influence whether one exercises, and those with these genes, tend toward lower depression rates (1). There are a myriad of randomized controlled trials concluding that exercise benefits depression, particularly with moderate to vigorous intensity (2, 3).

Here are some highlights from a study titled: Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis. 

Exercise is: 

  • Effective for treating depression

  • Superior to no intervention and usual care for depression

  • COMPARABLE to psychotherapy and antidepressants for depression

  • May be a viable adjunct to antidepressants for depression

  • May serve as an alternative to established treatments and long mental health waiting lists 

Now we come to the biochemistry. Dr. Patrick highlights three mechanisms that explain how exercise benefits depression. 

  1. Exercise, particularly endurance or high-intensity aerobic exercise, impacts the kynurenine pathway. When the amino acid tryptophan is converted to niacin, kynurenine is produced along the way. Under the influence of exercise, kynurenine is converted into the neuroprotective kynurenic acid. In the presence of inflammation, it is converted to a neurotoxin. Regular exercise leads to adaptations in the kynurenine pathways that can be implicated in those with depression (4). 

  2. Exercise enhances brain derived neurotrophic-factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein found in the brain and it has been implicated in nerve development, growth, and survival (5).

  3. Exercise increases endocannabinoids, and is one of the reasons we experience a runner’s high after prolonged exercise (6). 

Lifestyle interventions like meditation, exercise, and diet are foundational to our mental health. I have witnessed profound clinical outcomes with these basic changes.

May this inspire you to move that beautiful body of yours.