New Research: This is the #1 Exercise for Reducing Depression Symptoms

Updated: Jun. 10, 2024

Plus, doctors' fascinating scientific formula helps you determine exactly how long—and how hard—it would help to move your body each week.

Facing the day when you’re feeling low is daunting, and chances are good that your mood, energy, sleep and appetite are affected. According to the World Health Organization, 5.7% of adults over age 60 struggle with depression globally—but the National Institute on Aging emphasizes that while depression may be prevalent, is not considered to be a normal part of healthy aging.

Research has shown that certain lifestyle changes that commonly occur with age can contribute to depression, such as spending more time sedentary and alone. A 2024 meta-analysis of more than 200 studies on depression and exercise found making efforts to stay active is a reliable way to combat feeling down—and new research suggests one way to move your body is particularly powerful.

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The June 2024 meta-analysis published in BMC Geriatrics reviewed 47 studies, encompassing nearly 3,000 participants and analyzing the effects of seven types of exercise on depressive symptoms:

  • Walking
  • Yoga
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Tai Chi
  • Qi gong, gentle movement exercises that facilitate the release of suppressed energy and emotions
  • Resistance training
  • Mixed physical activity

The researchers also aimed to determine how different “doses” of each exercise, or how often and how long you do a certain workout, could affect depressive symptoms. They measured these doses in “MET” scores, with “MET” standing for the metabolic equivalent of a task, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. METs quantify the energy expended while engaged in an activity and can be “translated” into the intensity of movement:

  • Sedentary: Uses 1.5 or fewer METs
  • Light exercise: Uses between 1.6-3 METs
  • Moderate exercise: Uses between 3-6 METs
  • Vigorous exercise: Uses at least 6 METs

According to WebMD, doctors often use MET scores to prescribe exercise to patients. They are calculated by multiplying the METs expended during an activity by the number of minutes someone practices—or is being advised to practice—that activity each week. For example, taking a slow stroll would use about one MET, and doing so for an hour each day would have a MET score of 1 x 60 x 7 = 420.

The June 2024 meta-analysis researchers observed that older adults who incorporated regular walking, aerobic exercise, yoga, Qigong, resistance training, or Tai Chi all experienced “significantly alleviated depressive symptoms” compared to the control group.

However, walking, in particular, yielded “the best effects.” Researchers notably observed that walking effectively reduced symptoms of depression even at a “very low dose” of 250 METs/week.

Overall, the researchers found that expending between 350 to 1,000 METs per week effectively reduced depressive symptoms, with an ideal dose of at least 800 METs per week.

This synthesis of such a vast body of research reminds us that exercise is one of the most powerful tools to boost self-esteem, create a feeling of achievement, provide opportunities for social connection, and fire up the endorphins that make you feel so much better.

No matter how old you are, if you’re struggling with depression, consider starting with just a slow, easy walk around the block to feel how the fresh air, sunshine and a little gentle movement affect your mental well-being. You’re worth the effort.