Rethinking Exercise Promotion in Depression: A Call from Reddit’s r/depression Community to Move Beyond “Just Exercise”


Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting 15-20% of North Americans and posing a significant burden on individuals' wellbeing. Among the many potential treatment approaches, exercise stands out as promising due to its multifaceted physiological, psychological, and social benefits. Nevertheless, numerous barriers contribute to low exercise rates among individuals with depression. Therefore, our objective was to explore exercise barriers among people experiencing depression. Exercise barriers are often discussed and highlighted on social media. Among the various social media platforms, Reddit favours anonymity—thus encouraging its members to communicate candidly and without reservation. In turn, we conducted a social media analysis of Reddit’s r/depression subreddit (a community with nearly 1 million members). We used the search terms “exercise” and “gym” to identify salient threads. We selected threads based on their all-time 1) top upvotes, and 2) relevance. We performed a reflexive thematic analysis on 16 threads, including 2339 comments, with critical discussions amongst team members at regular intervals throughout coding. Reflexive thematic analysis resulted in four marked themes/barriers: 1) symptoms of depression inhibit exercise, 2) exercise does nothing to improve wellbeing as the underlying illness remains unresolved, 3) exercise can lead to considerable emotional (e.g., guilt) and physical (e.g., pain) distress, which further deteriorates wellbeing and, most notably, 4) an overwhelming resentment towards peers’ and professionals’ use of simplistic statements (e.g., “just exercise”). Our research highlights the exercise-related challenges experienced by people navigating depression. Finally, our research presents pragmatic exercise promotion suggestions for researchers, clinicians, and practitioners.