Exercise

Our rating
2 smilies: This treatment is useful. It is supported by scientific evidence as effective, but the evidence is not as strong.

What is it?

There are two main types of exercise. Aerobic exercise such as running improves overall fitness and builds up the heart, circulation and lungs. Strength exercise such as weight training builds up muscles.

How does it work?

Exercise might reduce depression in many different ways. More research is needed to understand how exercise might help depression.

Exercise may help people to take their mind off negative thoughts and feel better about themselves. People who exercise with others will have more social contact. This can help reduce depression.

People with lower mood are often less active. Increased activity levels may lift mood. Exercise may lead to helpful changes in brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). It can also reduce stress hormones. Exercise might also help the brain to grow new cells and be healthy.

Is it effective?

There is some scientific evidence on exercise for the treatment of depression. More studies of better quality are needed.

Evidence suggests that aerobic exercise such as running, walking and cycling is helpful for depression. A small amount of evidence has also been found for some other styles of aerobic exercise such as dancing and rowing. More research needs to be done to determine whether strength exercise is helpful for depression.

A few studies have compared the effects of cognitive behavioural therapy and exercise. Overall they found similar outcomes.

Exercise can be more helpful for people with milder symptoms. For older people, exercise has been found to be as helpful as antidepressant medication or increased social contact.

Are there any disadvantages?

Injuries can occur during exercise. People with bone, heart or other physical problems may not be able to do all forms of exercise.

Where do you get it?

You can exercise just about anywhere. Jogging, riding and walking can be done outside in parks or on bicycle paths. Stationary bicycles can be purchased or hired from sports or bicycle stores. Aerobic exercise can also be done indoors. For example, people can use DVDs or take classes at health clubs. Strength training is available at gyms and health clubs.

Exercise physiologists are health professionals who can help you design an exercise program. In some situations their services are available under Medicare Australia. To find help near you, please see the Exercise & Sports Science Australia website http://www.essa.org.au/

Recommendation

Physical activity and exercise can support your general health and wellbeing. Exercise appears to help in reducing depressive symptoms in adults.

If you are increasing your exercise, feel concerned about injuring yourself or if you are over the age of 35 years, talk with your health professional about which type exercise may be best for you.

Key references

  • Rimer J, Dwan K, Lawlor DA, Greig CA, McMurdo M, Morley W, Mead GE. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012; 7.

Last updated and reviewed: 17 February 2015