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


The rating system

  • 3 smiliesThese treatments are very useful. They are strongly supported as effective by scientific evidence.
  • 2 smiliesThese treatments are useful. They are supported by scientific evidence as effective, but the evidence is not as strong.
  • 1 smileyThese treatments are promising and may be useful. They have some evidence to support them, but more evidence is needed to be sure they work.
  • No smiley On the available evidence, these treatments do not seem to be effective.
  • Question markThese treatments have not been properly researched. It is not possible to say whether they are useful or not.
  • Exclamation MarkSafety or other concerns have been raised for the use of these treatments.

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?

A large number of studies have looked at the effect of exercise on depression symptoms.

A recent umbrella review of other reviews of studies found that exercise was effective in reducing symptoms of depression in adults who had been diagnosed with depression. This review also found that exercise is effective in reducing symptoms of depression in adults who do not have depression. All types of exercise were found to be effective, but higher intensity exercise was more effective than lower intensity exercise. 

A review of studies also found that exercise is similarly effective to anti-depressant medication for reducing symptoms of depression in people with mild to moderate depression. However, more people dropped out of the exercise treatment. A separate review of studies found that adding exercise to usual psychological treatment or anti-depressant medication was more effective than without including exercise.

A separate umbrella review found that supervised physical activity programs may be effective for reducing depression symptoms, but that there was a lack of research about unsupervised exercise.

Exercise can be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression and can be combined with other depression treatments. More high quality research is required to understand which types of exercise might be most beneficial.

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.


Exercise can be an effective treatment for depression in adults. Physical activity and exercise can support your general health and wellbeing.

If you are increasing your exercise, if you 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.
  • Lee J, Gierc M, Vila-Rodriguez F, Puterman E, Faulkner G. Efficacy of exercise combined with standard treatment for depression compared to standard treatment alone: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of affective disorders. 2021;295:1494-511.
  • Recchia F, Leung CK, Chin EC, Fong DY, Montero D, Cheng CP, et al. Comparative effectiveness of exercise, antidepressants and their combination in treating non-severe depression: a systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2022; 56(23):1375-80.
  • Singh B, Olds T, Curtis R, Dumuid D, Virgara R, Watson A, et al. Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2023: bjsports-2022-106195.
  • Vella SA, Sutcliffe JT, Fernandez D, Liddelow C, Aidman E, Teychenne M, et al. Context matters: A review of reviews examining the effects of contextual factors in physical activity interventions on mental health and wellbeing. Mental Health and Physical Activity. 2023; 25:100520.

Last updated and reviewed: 14 August 2023