Working Out Relieves Depression and Boosts Brain Cells

Running may help you feel better and remember more. (Myles Dumas/

People who work out on a regular basis tend to feel bad when they miss their daily exercise. Exercise has antidepressant effects and Astrid Bjornebekks rat study at the Karolinska Institue in Sweden is helping to explain why. In her experiments, both exercise and antidepressants increased the formation of new cells in an area of the brain that is important to memory and learning, the hippocampus.

The hippocampus of the brain has long been associated with reward centers for thirst, hunger, and other needs. Exercise has long been known to give people a boost in spirit! Bjornebekk has evidence that exercise can have an antidepressant effect for a range of mild to moderately severe depression. If a person is taking antidepressants for depression, the addition of exercise can add a boost to their medication. “What is interesting is that the effect of antidepressant therapy can be greatly strengthened by external environmental factors,” Bjornebekk says.

The Swim Test!

To test the affect of exercise on depression, Bjornebekk used experimental rats that were genetically engineered to behave as if they were depressed. For 30 days, one experimental group of depressed rats and one group of the control rats had access to running wheels on which they could exercise. Another set of experimental and control rats did not have access to running wheels.

To determine if running changed the mood of the depressed rats, a standard swim test was used. The more the rat is in good spirits, the more it will swim around in the water. Conversely, the more the rat is depressed, the more it will stay still in the water.

Bjornebekk found that the depressed rats that had 30 days to exercise on the running wheel were active swimmers unlike the depressed rats who did not have access to running wheels. In fact, depressed rats that got exercise had similar results to the control rats.

How Does This Work?

It is known that the hippocampus in a human brain gets smaller in depressed people. It is thought that the decrease in the size of the hippocampus causes some of the mental problems linked to depression. “The hippocampus formation is one of the regions they have actually seen structural changes in depressed patients,” Bjornebekk said.

When Bjornebekk examined the hippocampus of the depressed rats that had exercised, she found that the number of neurons in the hippocampus had increased dramatically. The running wheel exercise had a similar effect on new cell growth as compared to using a common antidepressant, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).

Both exercise and antidepressants have an effect on the hippocampus. ( Ltd)

Exercise as Therapy for Depression

Can depressed people find additional help in exercise? Bjornebekk’s study suggests that they can. It also give us a clue to the underlying biological effects of exercise on depression. The study shows that exercise has a similar action on the hippocampus as do prescription drugs on depression. Exercise, so important in many areas of our health, can help to keep us happy, too.





More to Explore

Check out the following sites to read more about Dr. Bjornebekk’s discovery:


  1. I agree with you

  2. I agree, when I work out regularly my mood is elevated. Days that I am unable to work out I don’t feel as good, and sometimes may even feel a little down.

  3. I feel the same way about exercise. Lately I have been working out daily and I feel so much better about myself.

  4. i think running helps you get healthy

  5. chelsea :) says

    i love running and working out so this is a very nice article that i liked to read.

  6. ya, that’s right

  7. I run about 25 miles a week and have for a few years now. I have found that a good run can keep me emotionally up and alert for a couple of days, and I sleep better. If I need to skip the third day, I suffer mentally, emotionally and physically.

  8. This is so true, i work out on a regular basis and sometimes i am just not able to find the time to workout and it makes me feel sad and sometimes really depressed.

  9. This is a good article because when i don’t exercise I feel depressed and great stuff like that

  10. Diddo this article says it all ^^ I always knew it was true

  11. This speaks the truth! I go nuts when I don’t work out, and do my work better when I’ve been exercising.

  12. This is so true! When I don’t work out I become sort-of down on myself. I also don’t feel too well.

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