Plus, 7 research-backed dietary habits that can be a boon for your mood, too.
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Major depression is a serious health condition that affects approximately 21 million American adults, or more than 8% of us, the National Institute of Mental Health reports.

Beyond feeling a bit bummed (which isn't fun either, of course!), major depression involves a period of at least two weeks during which you have a depressed mood or lose interest in activities you used to enjoy, plus experience depression-related symptoms like trouble sleeping, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, change in appetite or decreased self-worth, per the NIMH.

Therapy and medications that adjust brain hormones are among the most effective and research-backed treatments for a serious case of depression, according to the Mayo Clinic. Lifestyle modifications can help support these medical interventions as well (as described by this woman who used healthy eating and exercise to help fight depression and anxiety).

The Impact of Exercise on Depression

Since depression is so widespread—and became even more so during the pandemic—countless studies have delved into the topic of how our daily habits can bolster or burden our mental health. The latest demonstrates how a little exercise can go a long way to prevent depression before it happens.

According to an April 2022 meta-analysis published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, adults who performed physical activity equivalent to 75 minutes of brisk walking per week had 18% lower risk of depression than those who didn't exercise. Stepping things up to 2½ hours (or 150 minutes) per week, or 30 minutes every weekday, was linked to 25% lower risk for depression.

The benefits were biggest for those going from couch to just a little movement, which is heartening news for those who feel like the World Health Organization's recommended physical activity levels of 150 minutes of moderate activity per week are potentially out of reach right now. Each little step adds up. A 2018 study in The Lancet supports this finding, reporting that those who exercised three to five days per week for 45 minutes each bout had about 43% fewer poor mental health days than their inactive peers. Even doing basic household chores reduced mental health "off" days by 10%.

A woman and grandfather are walking on the street at the park looking happy
Credit: Getty Images / Nutthaseth Vanchaichana

The Impact of Diet on Depression

It's clear that how (actually, whether) we move our bodies moves the needle on mental health. We also know that how we feast influences how we feel.

According to a March 2020 meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which analyzed 22 studies, the following dietary factors were also found to be related to improved mood and fewer depression symptoms among those with depression:

  1. An anti-inflammatory eating pattern rich in vegetables, whole grains, olive oil and fish and with limited sweets, refined flours, high-fat products, red and processed meats
  2. Few processed foods as part of an overall meal plan (but keep in mind that some processed foods are A-OK!)
  3. High intake of fruits, vegetables and fiber
  4. Adequate intake of vitamin B12, folic acid and magnesium, factors that are usually related to an overall well-balanced, whole-foods-based diet
  5. Few foods that are totally "off-limits"; vegans have much higher rates of depression than omnivores, and the researchers found that depression risk increases significantly related to the amount of foods eliminated from the diet
  6. Low intake of added sugars
  7. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet, or something similar

It may not take long for diet to impact symptoms of depression, either. While no recommendations hold true for all humans, especially in the case of mental health, if you start now you might notice a difference in less than a month. In an October 2019 PLOS One study involving 101 participants who had been diagnosed with depression, just three weeks of following a Mediterranean diet was enough to reduce their symptoms of depression even three months later. (Check out more on that here.)

The Bottom Line

To be clear, lifestyle and diet are not a replacement for medical treatment for mental illnesses like depression. Be sure to check with your doctor to see if lifestyle changes are a good fit for your course of treatment. This research suggests that just 11 minutes of brisk walking a day is enough to reduce risk for depression. When it comes to diet, check out these 5 foods that might help improve mental health and stock up on 6 things dietitians eat when they want to boost their mood.

If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you're not alone. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress.