Monday, 21 May 2012

Depression and burnout: vicious cycles and the saving grace of exercise

A rise in levels of depression contributes to subsequent increases in work burnout, and burnout to later depression, according to new research. However, physical exercise can mitigate and even prevent this vicious cycle.

Here's the how: Sharok Toker and Michal Biron assessed employed visitors to a medical centre on three occasions spanning on average 40 months. They ended up with 1,632 participants from a range of occupations with a mean age of 47, mainly (70%) male. At each time point participants recorded levels of burnout, in terms of fatigue, cognitive weariness ("I have difficulty concentrating") and emotional exhaustion, as well as completing the depression scale of a patient-oriented clinical instrument. Participants also reported the volume of strenuous exercise they conducted within a typical week in the last month.

The what is as described: an increase in burnout from time one to time two predicted an increase in depression from time two to time three, even controlling for time two depression (that is, depression at the time of the burnout uptick). The same effect was found for depression on subsequent burnout. Why? These concepts are understood as related but distinct, with burnout reflecting strain due to the quality of the social situation at work whereas depression is a global state that involves a range of symptoms and an intense experience of sadness or diminished pleasure. Both however make demands on psychological and energetic resources, and this study's results bear out its expectations that a drain on these resources from one origin - such as a harried workplace - can lay the groundwork for other problems.

How about physical exercise? Toker and Biron hypothesised several reasons why it might act as a bulwark against this spiral. Exercise activates systems that can have physical outcomes like improving sleep and even damping down the physical consequences of sustained stress. It can also produce psychological benefits such as better body image and mood states. Moreover, it can be a useful way to take our mind off things, distracting from specific concerns (such as work challenges) or global cognitions (negative thoughts). Toker and Biron found that the more exercise you do, the milder the effect of earlier burnout/depression upon the other variable at a later time point, to the point of obliterating the effect for high doses of exercise.  They conclude that, as well as considering the larger links between job burnout and global depression, employers should recognise the benefits of exercise “as an important means of preventing the build-up of work-related or general distress.”

ResearchBlogging.orgToker, S., & Biron, M. (2012). Job burnout and depression: Unraveling their temporal relationship and considering the role of physical activity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97 (3), 699-710 DOI: 10.1037/a0026914


  1. I recently found this great APP the helps people monitor and improve their mental health. You can download it from the APP Store or visit

    Christal DeLoach
    Holistic Health Coach
    "Optimizing Your Mind, Body, & Spirit"

  2. Really interesting, there is a lot people I know burning out or just going mad, need to chill Winston!

  3. Exercise is a great help to us. It is only a small percentage that doing exercise could be bad for us. Depression is a common mental disorder. We can experience depression, all we need is to fight and win from it.

  4. What an interesting connection about exercise and depression. In connection to this, patients should also know the potential risks in taking antidepressants. Reports have it that they may cause worse emotional turmoil. Have you heard that Zoloft causes birth defects? It’s one of the most-discussed issues of antidepressants.

  5. Well said, most of the people in this world are under stress and depression.Depression is THE leading cause of disability here in the US. In the world. it is the second leading cause of disability. We need to do more to help everyone struggling with this illness......exercise and depression