Massage vs. Exercise vs. Acupuncture for Depression: Which is Best?
The causes of depression are numerous. It can be genetic, a product of internalizing unwanted emotional stress over time, or seasonally, especially in winter when the days are shorter and colder.
Experiencing long-term depression can take its toll on your personal and social life, as well as your overall health and well-being. Western medicine offers some treatment for depression, but often patients report they feel that more improvement in their symptoms could or should be made. Sometimes, the medication’s side effects interfere with the progress being made, or you simply can’t take medication due to pregnancy or other issues.
The three most commonly prescribed natural adjunct therapies for depression include massage, exercise, and acupuncture. What does the science say about each treatment? More importantly, which one is the most effective?
Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of each as it relates to alleviating symptoms related to depression.
Acupuncture for Depression
Acupuncture for depression is a safe and effective treatment. Studies show that acupuncture can be an effective way to alleviate the symptoms of depression and those related to it, such as anxiety, restlessness, irritability, poor sleep, and fatigue.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, when you feel depressed, your energy is low, and you can feel a lack of motivation. This is associated with blocked qi.
Qi is the flow of energy in the body. When your qi or energy is blocked or stagnant within the body, this can cause episodes of depression.
Our experienced and licensed Chicago acupuncturist will be able to pinpoint where the blocks are occurring based on your exam, history and symptoms. The acupuncturist places very tiny and specialized needles into the points where your energy is blocked to get it moving again.
Does Acupuncture Work for Depression?
Acupuncture treatment for depression has been found effective alone or in combination with medication and other therapies.
With that said, acupuncture alone might not be sufficient for alleviating depressive symptoms. Therefore, medication could still be needed. Studies show that patients using antidepressants in conjunction with acupuncture reported a reduction in both the symptoms and severity of depression.
Acupuncture may also be a safe and effective alternative to antidepressants for women during pregnancy or other situations where certain medications may be contraindicated. 
As always, never discontinue medication without discussing it with your prescribing doctor.
Massage for Depression
Massage is for more than relaxation. It can help alleviate soreness, promote recovery, and, as numerous studies are reporting, reduce symptoms of depression.
A massage will entail the manual manipulation of your muscle tissue to break up adhesions (knots) and correct muscle length-tension relationships. Various pressures are provided from soft to deep; it all depends on your preferences and our massage therapist’s expert recommendations.
Does Massage Alleviate Depression?
We all know what a stiff back feels like after a tough workout or sleeping on the wrong mattress. If this feeling of stiffness and rigidness happens to numerous muscle groups for an extended time, this can limit your mobility.
Tight muscles can also cause other issues such as headaches and migraines while interfering with healthy sleep. In turn, this can worsen the severity of depressive symptoms.
While massage therapy will not cure depression, it has been shown to effectively reduce symptoms of depression.
By restoring movement in the body, increasing blood flow, and promoting relaxation, massage can improve energy levels, reduce physical pain (muscle and joint), and decrease stress and anxiety. 
Exercise for Depression
The benefits of exercise can never be overstated. From taking a simple walk to performing a custom strength training workout, all exercise forms that benefit the body are encouraged. But exercise does more than help you look good; it also helps you feel better.
It’s important to keep in mind that exercise does not mean seven days a week, two hours per day. The idea is to focus on physical activities, those things that get you up and moving. This could be a workout at your local gym, but it could also mean gardening, bike riding, or hiking.
Does Exercise Help with Depression?
Exercise has been consistently shown to be invaluable for brain and mental health in a few important ways:
First, exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, promotes the release of feel-good polypeptides known as endorphins. These brain chemicals promote relaxation and a positive mood. If you’ve ever felt joy after a long run, this “runner’s high” is an example of endorphins at work.
Second, exercise helps to increase the number of neurotransmitters in the brain. As a result, your cognitive ability improves over time.
Finally, exercise directly stimulates the region of the brain responsible for mood. Continuing with the second point, by strengthening the brain’s neurotransmitters and promoting more connections to the area of the brain responsible for mood, symptoms of depression are significantly reduced. 
Which One Should You Choose?
Ideally, you will want to include all three of these in a self-care program.
With that said, if you can only manage one of these things right now due to symptom severity or budget, we highly recommend a consultation. If pain is the biggest barrier than perhaps a program focusing on pain relief would be the biggest benefit. If fatigue is the biggest obstacle for you than perhaps an acupuncture appointment would be the best starting point. Our expert team is here to help you create a self care plan that will work for you.
Give us a call at 773-878-7330 to set up a consultation to discuss your history, current symptoms, and route of treatment to get you back up and moving again. If your pain is severe, we also provide same-day emergency appointments.
- Sniezek DP, Siddiqui IJ. Acupuncture for Treating Anxiety and Depression in Women: A Clinical Systematic Review. Med Acupunct. 2013;25(3):164-172. doi:10.1089/acu.2012.0900.
- Hou WH, Chiang PT, Hsu TY, Chiu SY, Yen YC. Treatment effects of massage therapy in depressed people: a meta-analysis. J Clin Psychiatry. 2010 Jul;71(7):894-901. DOI: 10.4088/JCP.09r05009blu. Epub 2010 Mar 23. PMID: 20361919.
- Craft LL, Perna FM. The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2004;6(3):104-111. doi:10.4088/PCC.v06n0301.