Reciprocal Relationship Between Depression and Exercise

Summary: Researchers uncovered a reciprocal relationship between depression and physical activity in adults. The findings reveal that current depression symptoms can deter physical activity years later, although the reverse isn’t necessarily true—current inactivity doesn’t predict future depression symptoms.

This study emphasizes the significant influence of physical activity on improving mood and mental health, akin to the effects of antidepressants. By utilizing a novel causal inference technique, the study provides a more accurate understanding of how depression and physical activity influence each other over time.

Key Facts:

  1. Reciprocal Relationship: Depression symptoms and physical activity affect each other, where more physical activity can lead to fewer depression symptoms, and current depression can reduce future physical activity.
  2. Longitudinal Study: The research followed 3,499 U.S. adults from 1986 to 2011, providing robust data on how lifestyle and mental health evolve over time.
  3. Advanced Methodology: The study applied a new causal inference technique that controls for individual life histories and context, offering a clearer view of the interactions between physical activity and depression.

Source: University of Toronto

New research from the University of Toronto finds that adults reporting more depression symptoms in the past week are less likely to report physical activity in the same period, and this relationship generally goes both ways: being more active is also linked to better mental health.

Published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, the study contributes to better understanding how depression symptoms and physical activity are connected and mutually affect each other during adulthood.

This shows a woman working out.
Overall, physical activity and mental health mutually affect each other. Credit: Neuroscience News

“It was surprising to find that present depression symptoms can negatively impact your physical activity levels two to five years later, while being inactive today is not related to your future depression symptoms,” says author Soli Dubash, a doctoral candidate in the University of Toronto’s Department of Sociology.

“Current depression symptoms may have lasting effects, but these may be less substantial than the effects of current physical activity.”

Many studies show that going to the gym, dancing, gardening or regularly walking can improve both your mental and physical health, with effects similar to those of anti-depressant medication.

The new study further supports this conclusion, showing that weekly physical activity is related to weekly depression symptoms, and that moving more can improve your mood.

“Better understanding the reciprocal relationship between mental health and physical activity can help people make evidence-based decisions about their health, and the health of their loved ones and community members,” says Dubash.

“It’s important to allow people to reach their own decisions about the causes and consequences of physical activity and depression symptoms, and to grasp the impact that moving more—or less—can have on mood and overall health.”

Following a nationally representative sample of 3,499 U.S. adults from 1986 until 2011, the study assessed the lasting effects of baseline differences in physical activity levels and depression symptoms; how past physical activity predicts future physical activity; how past depression symptoms predict future depression symptoms; and the stability of this relationship during adulthood.

This study used a new causal inference technique to help ensure that these estimates represent people’s experiences in the world. The method adjusted for stable characteristics of individuals, including omitted variables such as individual biology, family and community contexts, and life history.

While the idea that depression symptoms and physical activity are related during adulthood is not new, a new technique for examining reciprocal relationships over time allows for several alternative arguments to be accounted for.

“You may immediately ask how personal factors play into this reciprocal relationship—wouldn’t genetics or early life history matter?—and that’s what this method allows us to adjust for, compared with earlier techniques that would assume some evidence relevant to those important questions away,” Dubash says.

Overall, physical activity and mental health mutually affect each other. Week to week, moving more can improve your mood.

This research shows that earlier depression symptoms may persist, but their long-term effects could be less impactful than current physical activity. It also shows that over time, untreated depression symptoms can hold negative consequences for physical activity levels which can then cause additional health problems.

“What really matters is that people make informed decisions about how to treat their mental health symptoms, particularly with the knowledge that physical activity continues to be one of the best ways to improve the health of individuals and their communities—yet, more people need to understand how depression symptoms can influence this process,” says Dubash.

About this depression and exercise research news

Author: Soli Dubash
Source: University of Toronto
Contact: Soli Dubash – University of Toronto
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
The interplay of depression symptoms and physical activity: Bidirectional insights from 25-years of the Americans’ changing lives panel” by Soli Dubash. Mental Health and Physical Activity


The interplay of depression symptoms and physical activity: Bidirectional insights from 25-years of the Americans’ changing lives panel


Depression symptomology (DSx) and insufficient Physical Activity (PA) are among the leading causes of illness, and major contributors to global public health burden. Reviews and meta-analyses indicate that DSx and PA cause each other, yet most studies conducted use data and analyses which cannot specify their bidirectional associations across the life course.


The present study estimates dynamic panel models with fixed effects through structural equation models with full-information maximum likelihood estimation (ML-SEM) based on 5 waves (1986–2011) of the Americans’ Changing Lives (ACL) panel. This is a nationally representative probability sample of 3499 non-institutionalized U.S. adults ages 25 and older in 1986.

Respondents participated in an average of 3.29 waves, with 67.84% participating in at least 3 waves, and 27.26% participating in all 5 waves. Models adjust for age, partner status, social integration, activity limitations, and serious financial problems. Data are available from the ICPSR (4690).


Estimates from ML-SEM reveal negative and significant bidirectional cross-sectional associations between DSx and PA. Models also indicate a negative and significant cross-lagged association from DSx to PA, but not from cross-lagged PA to DSx. On both sides, earlier levels are significantly associated with future levels of PA and DSx.


This study is the first to use a causal inference technique which adjusts for all time-invariant confounders while modelling the bidirectional linkages between depression symptoms and physical activity over 25-years of adulthood. It supports literature showing a consistent cross-sectional relationship, and advances understanding on how DSx earlier in the adult life course may influence PA as people age.

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  1. I have suffered major depression for 50 of my 70 years whenever my physical & OR Directed Mental activity waned. A day or 2 There was no major ill effects, any more than that and Think too much and depression seeped into my conciousness. When it was possible to swim at least a kilometer and or powerwalk 6 km, it was easier to evade those deep dark Blues. Driving a Taxi, sitting in a car for the long hours neccesary to pay the rent and keep a roof over my head was an endless long punishment, on the edge of the abyiss fighting to stay away from the event horizon of the black hole of depression. Only since Moving to Thailand and retiring have I had the Freedoms to do what I gotta do To become sane and stave off the depression that has plagued my life. Swimming is still the Physical excersise of choise for me, learning to play Classical music for at least an hour a day ensures that I become adequately mentally tired every day to get a good nights sleep and awaken refreshed.

  2. Thanks for the fantastic information, we have to start from early age to get people to realy start doing sports

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