Sweating away depression? The impact of intensive exercise on depression

J Affect Disord. 2016 Aug;200:218-21. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2016.04.030. Epub 2016 Apr 20.


Background: In periods of prolonged stress and pain the body produces endorphins to help endure pain. The PANIC system is built on the same pathways as the pain system and is characterized by behaviour that looks like depression. The term 'mental pain' in the context of feelings of loss is arguably justified in light of this relationship between the physical pain and social loss systems. It is reasonable to expect that endorphin release ameliorates depression.

Methods: Moderately depressed males (n=30) were randomly assigned to one of three groups of varying exercise intensity. Each underwent a six-week exercise programme for three days per week, one hour per day. The HAM-D, MADRS, and ANPS were administered weekly and β-endorphin levels measured.

Results: Moderate- and high-intensity exercise improved depression levels, while very-low intensity exercise did not have as beneficial an effect. β-endorphin results were inconclusive. Participants showed a slight decrease in PANIC and FEAR, and increased SEEKING.

Limitations: The potential insensitivity of the assays that were utilized, and the known problems with measuring β-endorphins, may have contributed to the findings. The lack of a state measure of the basic emotion systems is problematic, as a trait measure has to be relied upon, and this likely affected the ability to accurately detect changes over time.

Conclusions: The demonstrated improvements in depressive symptoms have important implications for the clinical treatment of patients despite the hypothesis that the PANIC system is involved in the genesis and maintenance of depression not having been conclusively confirmed.

Keywords: Depression; Exercise; PANIC/Separation-distress system; β‐Endorphin.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Depression / psychology
  • Depression / therapy*
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy*
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Exercise Therapy / methods*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Young Adult