Journal Issues New Guidelines for Exercise as Treatment for Depression

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San Francisco psychotherapist Michael Halyard, MFT outlines new guidelines for using exercise to treat depression, as explained in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice.

The studies indicate that individuals may experience a lessening of their depressive symptoms in as little as four weeks after beginning their exercise program!

Various studies demonstrate exercise’s effectiveness as a natural antidepressant, used by itself or with other treatments. The May issue of Journal of Psychiatric Practice provides specific guidelines for using exercise as a treatment for major depression, including the type of exercise, frequency, duration, and intensity level.

“Many people notice the antidepressant effect of exercise--but most don’t know what kind of exercise is the most effective, along with how much is needed to reduce depression. The new guidelines clear up this question,” says San Francisco therapist Michael Halyard.

Halyard is a San Francisco Marriage and Family Therapist and can be found on the websites and

The article’s authors reviewed data from a number of randomized exercise studies to determine precise recommendations. The studies demonstrated exercise’s effectiveness at reducing depressive symptoms, used alone, or in combination with other treatments, like psychotherapy and/or antidepressant medication. As a treatment, exercise is accessible, low or no cost, and has negligible negative side effects. Exercise is particularly good alternative for people who haven’t received adequate reduction of symptoms from conventional treatments.

The results found that aerobic exercise works best for people with major depression. Resistance training has also been shown to be effective, but there is less evidence for this modality. As for frequency and duration, individuals are recommended to three to five sessions per week, 45-60 minutes per session.

For the intensity level of aerobic exercise, the authors recommended attaining a heart rate that is 50 to 85 percent of the individual’s maximum heart rate. An individual’s maximum heart rate can be estimated by using the formula: maximum heart rate = 220 - the individual’s age.

For the intensity level of resistance training, the authors recommend an assortment of upper and lower body exercises, with three sets of eight repetitions at 80 percent of “one-repetition maximum”. “One-repetition maximum” is denoted as “RM” and is defined as 80 percent of the maximum weight an individual can lift at one time. To calculate RM, an individual can use an online calculator like the one here.

The studies indicate that individuals may experience a lessening of their depressive symptoms in as little as four weeks after beginning their exercise program! Nonetheless, the authors recommended that the exercise program continue for a minimum of ten to twelve weeks to obtain an optimal antidepressant effect.

“I recommend that individuals track their depression level upon starting their exercise program. You can use a scale from 0-10, where 0 indicates no depression, and 10 indicates extreme depression. Write down your depression level in the morning and before you go to bed at night. Hopefully you'll start to notice a change pretty fast,” explains Halyard.    

Even if individuals have difficulty obtaining the recommended frequency level and intensity level, exercise can still be beneficial. Although not the topic of the discussed study, exercise can be beneficial for a variety of other psychiatric conditions.

“Although the research was focused on Major Depressive Disorder--a particularly disabling type of depression, it seems likely that the approach would also be effective for Dysthymia--which is chronic low grade depression, and other psychiatric conditions. And of course physical exercise is extremely important in maintaining good physical health,” adds Halyard.

Make sure to consult your doctor before starting an exercise program.


Michael Halyard, MS, MFT is a San Francisco Marriage and Family Therapist and specializes in LGBT issues, depression, anxiety, addictions and couples counseling in his San Francisco private practice. He can be found on the websites and

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