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 and anaerobic. Aerobic exercise includes activities such as running, cycling, or playing sports, and improves overall fitness and builds up the heart, circulation and lungs. Anaerobic exercise includes strength training, such as lifting weights or doing push-ups, and high-intensity exercises such as sprinting. These types of exercise help to build up muscle and strength.  

How does it work?

More research is needed to understand exactly how exercise might help depression, however there are a number of different ways that it might help:

  • Exercise may help people to take their mind off negative thoughts and feel better about themselves.
  • Participating in team sports can increase social contact, which can help reduce depression.
  • Exercise may lead to helpful changes in brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) and reduce stress hormones.
  • Exercise might also help the brain to grow new cells and be healthy.

Is it effective?

While 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 found that exercise is similarly effective to psychological treatment and antidepressant medication for reducing symptoms of depression.

Exercise can be more helpful for people with milder symptoms of depression. 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. Not all types of exercise will be suitable for all types of people, so it is best to talk to your doctor if you’re thinking of starting a new exercise program.

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 be done indoors, following DVDs or video-based programs available online.
  • Gyms offer a wide range of equipment for both strength and aerobic training, and usually run group fitness classes.
  • Many local organisations run team sports like soccer, netball and basketball.

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.

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

  • Cooney GM, Dwan K, et. al. Exercise for depression. Cochrane database of systematic reviews. 2013; 9.

Last updated and reviewed: 1 May 2019