Physical activity and depression: Towards understanding the antidepressant mechanisms of physical activity

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019 Dec:107:525-539. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.09.040. Epub 2019 Oct 2.


Physical activity can treat and prevent depressive symptoms, but its antidepressant mechanisms are yet to be established. In this review, we comprehensively assess key biological and psychosocial mechanisms through which physical activity exerts antidepressant effects, with a particular focus on exercise. Exercise, a subset of physical activity, influences a range of biological and psychosocial processes also implicated in the pathophysiology of depression. We focus on the capacity for exercise to elicit changes in neuroplasticity, inflammation, oxidative stress, the endocrine system, self-esteem, social support and self-efficacy. We also discuss how a better understanding of these mechanisms can inform the way we design and implement exercise-based interventions to maximise their antidepressant effects on an individual basis. We conclude by presenting a conceptual framework of the key biological and psychosocial mechanisms underlying the relationship between physical activity and depressive symptoms, and the moderators and confounders that may influence it.

Keywords: BDNF; Depression; Exercise; HPA; Hippocampus; Inflammation; Mental health; Neuroplasticity; Non-pharmacological; Oxidative stress; Self-efficacy; Self-esteem; Social support; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Depression / drug therapy
  • Depression / psychology*
  • Depressive Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Social Support


  • Antidepressive Agents