By Beth W. OrensteinMedically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

Ever heard of endorphins — those natural mood-lifters that get released when you exercise? If you’re one of the many Americans with major depressive disorder (7 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health), listen up: Studies suggest that endorphin-boosting exercises may just be as effective in treating depression as antidepressant medication.

How? Researchers have found that exercise can help boost your self-esteem and divert attention from the problems that may be causing your depression.

But can people who have major depression benefit from any kind of regular physical activity? Probably, says James A. Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. However, he adds, “Most of the scientific evidence supporting the use of exercise as a treatment for major depression comes from aerobic exercise,” he says, and “there also has been at least one study that has shown strength training to be beneficial.”

Aerobics for MDD

Aerobic means oxygen-dependent, and aerobic exercises are those that increase your body’s need for oxygen. During aerobic exercises, such as walking, swimming, and bicycling, you are moving large muscles in your arms, legs, and hips. As a result, you breathe more deeply and your heart beats faster. More oxygen flows to your muscles and back to your lungs.

Kevin Bailey, founder of Bailey’s Total Fitness in Athens, Ga., recommends that patients with depression choose an aerobic activity that they can do for at least 30 minutes at a time, plus a 10-minute warm-up and a 5-minute cool-down. “This will give you the maximum benefits,” he says. A total of 45 minutes of exercise at least three times a week is great — and five times is even better.

Need help for depression? Find a mental health professional in your area.

The easiest aerobic exercise is brisk walking. “If you have knee or musculoskeletal issues,” Bailey says, “you might want to ride a bike, [either] outside or at the gym.” Swimming is also good aerobic exercise for people who are worried about wear and tear on their knees, he adds.

Strength Training for MDD

Like aerobic exercise, Bailey says, strength training can get blood to flow through your muscles and help you to feel stronger. Start with light weights (1, 3, or 5 pounds) and two sets of 20 repetitions of each exercise. Weight-bearing exercises can improve your mood, Bailey says, “because strengthening your core gives you an overall sense of strength.” Good core strength-training exercises include Pilates plank or yoga plank, with movements that strengthen arms and abs. As with aerobic exercise, your goal should be to perform strength-training exercises two to three times a week and from 30 to 45 minutes each time.

Exercise classes are also a good choice for people who are battling depression, says Bailey. Classes give people a sense of belonging. “You get to know each other and form relationships, and relationships are beneficial to people [living with] depression,” he explains.

Yet another mood-lifting benefit of exercising, Bailey says, is that you’re likely to sleep better at night, and sleeping better increases your energy levels. “For people with depression, fatigue and loss of energy are issues,” he says.

Talk To Your Doctor

Exercise can be a very effective treatment for major depressive disorder. But before you start an exercise regime, get the okay from your doctor, Bailey says. You may need to start slowly and build up your strength, especially if you haven’t exercised in a while.