The Role of Physical Activity and Physical Therapy in Combating Depression

Published - Oct 18, 2023

The Role of Physical Activity and Physical Therapy in Combating Depression

Clinically reviewed by Daniel Wiltfong LAT, ATC

Depression is a pervasive and debilitating mental health condition affecting millions of people worldwide. While it is primarily treated with psychotherapy and medication, the role of physical activity in combating depression is increasingly recognized as an effective complementary approach. Mental health professionals and physical therapists work in tandem to play a vital role in the recovery or management of mental health ailments. 

The Link Between Physical Activity and Depression

Depression is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities. It often leads to physical symptoms like fatigue, changes in appetite and sleep disturbances. Physical activity is an effective option in addressing some of these psychological and physiological symptoms.

  1.  Neurochemical Balance: Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators. Additionally, physical activity increases the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with improved mood regulation. A study published in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience (2006) demonstrated that regular exercise can be as effective as medication in treating depression.
  2. Stress Reduction: Physical activity also reduces the levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Chronic stress is often a contributing factor to depression, and exercise provides an effective outlet for managing stress and promoting emotional well-being.
  3. Cognitive Benefits: Exercise can enhance cognitive function and boost self-esteem. Engaging in physical activity fosters a sense of accomplishment and self-worth, which can help counteract the negative thought patterns common in depression.
  4. Social Engagement: Many physical activities are social in nature, providing individuals with opportunities for social interaction and support. This social engagement is important for breaking the cycle of isolation and loneliness that often accompanies depression.

The Role of Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is a specialized healthcare discipline that plays a crucial role in helping individuals, including those with depression, to initiate and sustain physical activity. Physical therapists are highly trained professionals who provide personalized care and guidance, making it easier for individuals to overcome the barriers to exercise.

  1. Personalized Exercise Plans: Physical therapists assess an individual's unique physical capabilities and limitations. They design customized exercise plans that cater to the person's specific needs, ensuring that the program is safe and effective.
  2. Education: Physical therapists educate their patients about the benefits of exercise, including how it positively impacts mood, sleep, and overall health. This education is vital for empowering individuals to take control of their mental health and integrate physical activity into their daily lives.
  3. Pain Management: Physical therapists can address pain through a combination of manual techniques and therapeutic exercises, making it more comfortable for individuals to engage in physical activity.
  4. Progress Monitoring: Physical therapists continuously assess an individual's progress, adapting the exercise plan as necessary. This iterative process ensures that the exercise program remains engaging and challenging, thereby sustaining motivation and promoting physical and mental well-being.

In combination with mental health services and medication where necessary, physical activity is a potent tool in the fight against depression, offering a multifaceted approach that addresses the neurochemical, psychological and social aspects of the condition. To harness the therapeutic potential of exercise, individuals can turn to physical therapy for specialized care and guidance. The role of physical therapists is pivotal in facilitating the initiation and maintenance of an active lifestyle.

The evidence supporting the efficacy of physical activity in helping to treat depression is continually growing. It is important for healthcare providers, mental health professionals, and individuals themselves to recognize the healing potential of physical activity and to consider the integral role that physical therapy can play in making this treatment approach accessible and sustainable. By combining psychological and physiological approaches, we can better combat the pervasive and debilitating impact of depression on individuals' lives.


  1. Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Exercise and depression: Endorphins, reducing stress, and more.
  2. American Physical Therapy Association. (n.d.). Physical therapy for mental health and wellness.
  3. Blumenthal, J. A., Babyak, M. A., Doraiswamy, P. M., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B. M., Barbour, K. A., Herman, S., Craighead, W. E., Brosse, A. L., Waugh, R., Hinderliter, A., & Sherwood, A. (2006). Exercise treatment for major depression: Maintenance of therapeutic benefit at 10 months. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 40(2), 123-131.


IRG Physical & Hand Therapy can partner with you or your loved ones in becoming or staying active. Learn more about service offerings at IRG here, including physical therapy, hand therapy, massage therapy, performance enhancement, athletic training and more.