Physical activity reduces symptoms of depression and increases the brain’s ability to change


Physical activity does the brain good. For example, it fosters its ability to change and adapt.

The dual beneficial effect of physical activity in depression is confirmed by a study at the University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) at the Ostwestfalen-Lippe campus: physical activity not only reduces depressive symptoms. It also increases the brain’s ability to change, which is necessary for adaptation and learning processes.

“The results show how important seemingly simple things like physical activity are in treating and preventing illnesses such as depression,” says study leader associate professor Dr. Karin Rosenkranz.

Exercise programme promotes motivation and togetherness

People with depression often withdraw and are physically inactive. To investigate the effect of physical activity, Karin Rosenkranz’s working group enlisted 41 people, who were undergoing treatment at the hospital, for the study. The participants were each assigned to one of two groups, one of which completed a three-week exercise programme.

The programme, which was developed by the sports science team from the University of Bielefeld led by Professor Thomas Schack, was varied, contained fun elements, and did not take the form of a competition or test, but instead required teamwork from the participants.

“This specifically promoted motivation and social togetherness while breaking down a fear of challenges and negative experiences with physical activity — such as school PE lessons,” explains Karin Rosenkranz. The other group took part in a control programme without physical activity.

The study team ascertained the severity of the depressive symptoms, such as a loss of drive and interest, lack of motivation and negative feelings, both before and after the programme. The brain’s ability to change, known as neuroplasticity, was also measured. It can be determined externally with the help of transcranial magnetic stimulation.

“The ability to change is important for all of the brain’s learning and adaptation processes,” explains Karin Rosenkranz.

Ability to change increased — symptoms decreased

The results show that the brain’s ability to change is lower in people with depression than in healthy people. Following the programme with physical activity, this ability to change increased significantly and achieved the same values as healthy people. At the same time, depressive symptoms decreased in the group.

“The more the ability to change increased, the more clearly the clinical symptoms decreased,” summarises Karin Rosenkranz. These changes were not so pronounced in the group who took part in the control programme.

“This shows that physical activity has an effect on symptoms and the brain’s ability to change. We cannot say to what extent the change in symptoms and the brain’s ability to change are causally linked based on this data,” says the doctor, referring to the limitations.

“It is known that physical activity does the brain good, as it, for instance, promotes the formation of neuron connections. This could certainly also play a role here.”

Observational study

Exercise can not only enhance physical health, reduce diseases, but also promote psychological development. Salgureo et al 10 found that physical activity was significantly correlated with depression in 436 elderly Spanish people (60‐98 years) (the Geriatric Depression Scale, GDS score), and more active physical activity was associated with lower depression level.

Another study with 622 elderly people showed that low‐intensity physical activity (<150 min/wk) increased the risk of depression (OR = 4.23) and led to lower cognitive function. 11 In a meta‐analysis, Schuch et al 12 found that people with high levels of physical activity were less likely to suffer from depression (OR = 0.83), which was more prominent in the elderly. In addition, lower limb muscle strength, balance, and walking speed were found negatively correlated with depression level in the elderly, indicating that the motor function of the elderly was closely related to depression. 13

Long‐term follow‐up studies further revealed the association between exercise and depression. A recent 11‐year follow‐up study of 33 908 adults found that regular exercise has helped to reduce depression, with 1‐hour exercise a week reducing the risk of depression by 12%. 2

After 2 years of follow‐up, Li et al 14 found that every 10 MET‐min/d decrease in physical activity level increased the risk of depression by 1.1% in boys and 2.1% in girls among college students, and every 10‐s prolongation in running test increased the risk of depression by 1.5% in boys and 6.3% in girls; thus, the author believed that cardiopulmonary endurance played a mediating role in physical activity and depression risk.

Improving physical activity and cardiopulmonary endurance can effectively reduce the risk of depression. Physical activity can also reduce the disability rate of depressed elderly. Lee and Park’s study followed 645 depressed elderly people over 65 years old for 1 year, and found that physical activity reduced the functional disability and alleviated the symptoms of depression. Therefore, proper physical activity is necessary for those elderly people. 15

Different exercises have different effects on depression. The intensity and duration of exercise have independent correlation with depression. Epidemiological studies have confirmed that aerobic or resistance exercises such as ball games, jogging, cycling, dancing, swimming, and Taijiquan have antidepressant effects. Chen et al 16 investigated the frequency, duration, and intensity of exercise in 2724 elderly people with depression in Taiwan, China.

Only exercise intensity had independent correlation with depression level. Exercise energy consumption of about 2000 kcal per week can effectively reduce the risk of depression in the elderly. While another survey of 2006 elderly people in Korea showed that exercise intensity, duration, and frequency were significantly correlated with the depressive symptoms. 17 Hamer and Stamatakis 18 followed up 6359 elderly people for 2 years and found that moderate‐intensity exercise at least once a week slowed down depression and improved speech fluency and memory.

reference link :

Original Research: 
“Physical Activity Reduces Clinical Symptoms and Restores Neuroplasticity in Major Depression” by Wanja Brüchle, Caroline Schwarzer, Christina Berns, Sebastian Scho, Jessica Schneefeld, Dirk Koester, Thomas Schack, Udo Schneider, Karin Rosenkranz. Frontiers in Psychiatry


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