Exercise reduces depression and inflammation but intensity matters

Biol Psychol. 2018 Mar;133:79-84. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2018.01.015. Epub 2018 Feb 3.


Background: Exercise may help to mitigate symptoms of depression by reducing inflammation; however, little is known about the influence of exercise intensity on depressed mood.

Methods: In the present study, sixty-one university students were assigned to six weeks of high-intensity interval training (HIT), moderate continuous training (MCT), or no exercise (CON) during their academic term. We measured changes in depression, anxiety and perceived stress along with pro-inflammatory cytokines tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), interleukin-6 (IL-6), interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β), and C-reactive protein (CRP).

Results: Depression increased for CON, demonstrating how quickly mental health can decline for students during their academic term. In contrast, MCT decreased depression and pro-inflammatory cytokine TNF-α levels. Although HIT decreased depressive symptoms, it also increased perceived stress, TNF-α and IL-6 relative to MCT. This may be due to the higher level of physical stress evoked by the more strenuous exercise protocol.

Conclusions: Taken together, the results suggest that moderate-intensity exercise may be an optimal intensity of exercise for the promotion of mental health by decreasing TNF-α. This is critical for informing the use of exercise as medicine for mental health.

Keywords: Cytokines; Interleukin-6 (IL-6); Mental health; Mood; Physical activity; Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • C-Reactive Protein / analysis
  • Depression / blood
  • Depression / prevention & control*
  • Depression / psychology
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Exercise Therapy / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / psychology
  • Interleukin-1beta / blood
  • Interleukin-6 / blood
  • Male
  • Physical Exertion / physiology*
  • Stress, Physiological
  • Stress, Psychological / blood
  • Stress, Psychological / prevention & control
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / blood
  • Young Adult


  • Interleukin-1beta
  • Interleukin-6
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • C-Reactive Protein

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