Movement as Medicine for Major Depression

This topic was reviewed by Joseph G., an Outreach Physical Therapist.

Physical therapists are movement specialists.

We have an extensive knowledge of the anatomy of the human body and injuries, diseases and illnesses that affect movement. Patients benefit from skilled physical therapists who perform thorough evaluations and develop treatment programs based on the findings of the examination. These treatment programs usually contain specific exercises to address specific impairments that affect mobility.

So it seems obvious, that physical therapy improves physical health. But what if I told you that physical therapy also improves mental health as well. Research suggests that exercise, which is major component of physical therapy intervention, can be effective in improving both physical and mental health for patients with major depression.

Depression and Exercise

Mental health has been a buzz phrase lately. Through the efforts of many organizations and inspiring individuals, the general population has become increasingly aware of mental health. Depression is the most common mental health illness. The most common symptoms of depression are:

  • Lack of interest in most or all activities
  • Decreased appetite and subsequent weight loss
  • Feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating and indecisiveness

Based on severity, an individual may be categorized as having mild, moderate or severe depression. In a 2015 study by Knapen et al, four meta analyses were analyzed in order to develop clinical guidelines for exercise therapy in patients diagnosed with depression. The results show that exercise is an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression

Implications for Rehab

This research study has several implication for rehab interventions:

  • The effects of exercise can be comparable to antidepressant medication and psychotherapy for individuals with mild to moderate depression
  • In addition to physical health, the improvements associated with exercise therapy also include body image, patient’s coping strategies, quality of life and independence with activities of daily living.
  • Motivational strategies should be incorporated into exercise programs to improve patient’s motivation and overall mood

While it is unlikely physical therapy will be the first line of treatment to address depression, we play a major role in improving the quality of life of our patients by prescribing exercise. The article does not indicate of specific exercises or mode of exercises are better in treating major depression, but it is clear that movement can be prescribed as medicine as a great benefit to those suffering from depression, including the patients we serve.


Knapen, J., Vancampfort, D., Moriën, Y., Marchal, Y., 2015. Exercise therapy improves both mental and physical health in patients with major depression. Disability. Rehabilitation. 37, 1490–1495.

How Outreach Can Help

We provide in-home Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Speech Therapy to individuals that have a difficult time getting/going to an out-patient rehabilitation facility on a consistent basis, prefer not to go to a facility, or those that are more effectively treated within their home.

We also have an out-patient clinic at 1110 2nd Avenue in the Sutton Place/UES area where we provide therapy for those who are adamant about receiving care in a clinic setting. Our evaluations are 45 minutes and treatments are one-to-one with an ample amount of treatment time per client (no double bookings allowed.)