Physical Activity and Depression: New Study Findings

Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable. Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease your ability to function at work and at home.

Depression symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed.
  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting.
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much.
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue.

Depression affects an estimated one in 15 adults (6.7%) in any given year. And one in six people (16.6%) will experience depression at some time in their life.

Physical activity is associated with higher levels of neuroplasticity in healthy individuals and has been identified as a protective factor against the onset of depression. The effect of physical activity (PA) or sports programs have been widely studied and the clinical benefit and therapeutic relevance have been shown. 

New Study Findings 

A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry investigated the effect of a PA program applied over a period of 3 weeks on clinical symptoms, neural excitability, and paired associative stimulation (PAS)-induced plasticity in the motor cortex, as well as on cognitive performance in patients with an acute episode of major depressive disorder (MDD) during their stay on the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Bochum, Germany. 

The research team designed a PA program to be of moderate intensity, including elements of endurance, strength, and coordination exercises that required interaction and teamwork of the participants, in order to avoid competition and the risk of perceived performance failure. 

The effect of the PA program was compared to a control group intervention administered over the same period that controlled for investigator-related effects, the experience of group cohesion, and social interaction, but patients abstained from additional physical activity.

The study was performed in a university hospital of primary psychiatric care for 18 months in total. 

The researchers found that patients with major depressive disorder who were in the physical activity group showed increased neuroplasticity that coincided with declines in clinical symptoms. 

The group that followed the physical activity program saw significantly greater declines in overall HAMD-17 (Hamilton Depression Scale-17) scores compared to the control group.

The findings also revealed reduced long-term-potentiation (LTP)-like plasticity in the motor cortex among both groups prior to intervention. They also noticed that plasticity was significantly enhanced following the intervention among the physical activity group, but not in the control group, suggesting that the physical activity program helped restore deficits in neuroplasticity.

The study highlights once more, the importance of physical activity and the benefits that it has not only for the prevention of multiple systemic diseases but also for the adequate function of the brain and mental health. 


Wanja Bruche, et al. Physical Activity Reduces Clinical Symptoms and Restores Neuroplasticity in Major Depression. Front Psych. 2021.

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