Burnout & Depression – Can physical activity make a difference?


The main symptom of burnout is a general state of exhaustion, which can develop over a longer period of time due to stress or excessive demands. However, due to the gradual development of burnout symptoms and a lack of consistent diagnosis, it is difficult to distinguish between prevention and therapy.


Physical activity can influence the development of work-related burnout. People with high levels of stress are significantly less susceptible to burnout, especially if they are physically more active in their spare time (LTPA = leisure activity, Chart 1).

Chart 1 Interaction between stress and LTPA (athletic leisure activities) on burnout symptoms (SMBM questionnaire) from Gerber et al., (2018).


Physical activity has a positive effect on burnout syndrome and its multidimensional symptoms. It shows that people who follow WHO’s exercise recommendations can greatly reduce their burnout symptoms in the long term compared to people who do not comply with the exercise recommendations. (Chart 2).

Chart 2 The orientation and compliance with the activity recommendations lead to a significant reduction of the questionnaire-related burnout symptoms. (Lindegard et al., 2015)


With regular physical activity, the occurrence of a Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) can be counteracted preventively. In people with a depressive disorder, physical activity significantly reduces symptoms.  


There is strong scientific evidence that people with a high level of physical activity are at a lower risk of developing MDD (See Chart 3). A high level of physical activity is defined by the fulfillment of WHO’s exercise recommendations.

Chart 3 Physically active persons have a significantly lower risk of developing a depressive disorder in each age group (graphic data adapted from Schuch et al., 2018) 


There is strong scientific evidence that physical activity is an effective way to intervene in the treatment of depressive disorders. The effects are as good as those of medications and psychotherapy, and clearly superior to usual care and no intervention (Chart 4).

Chart 4 Increased physical activity shows clear advantages over no intervention (1.24) and usual care (0.68). The benefits over medication (0.22) and psychotherapy (0.08) are small, but this is equivalent to recognizing that physical activity is at least as effective. (Data of the chart adapted from Kvam et al., 2016)


Lindegård, A., Jonsdottir, I. H., Börjesson, M., Lindwall, M., & Gerber, M. (2015). Changes in mental health in compliers and non-compliers with physical activity recommendations in patients with stress-related exhaustion. BMC Psychiatry, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-015-0642-3

Gerber, M., Isoard-Gautheur, S., Schilling, R., Ludyga, S., Brand, S., & Colledge, F. (2018). When low leisure-time physical activity meets unsatisfied psychological needs: Insights from a stress-buffer perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2097.

Kvam S., Kleppe C. L., Nordhus I. H., and Hovland A. 2016. Exercise as a treatment for depression: a meta‐analysis. J. Affect. Disord. 202:67–86. 10.1016/j.jad.2016.03.063

Schuch FB, Vancampfort D, Firth J, Rosenbaum S, Ward PB, Silva ES, Hallgren M, et al. Physical activity and incident depression: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Am J Psychiatry. 2018; https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17111194


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