Depression is likely to affect one in five women in the course of their lifetime. It is a complex and serious illness, but there is medical evidence that regular exercise is as effective as other treatments, including medication. Susanna Nelson reports

Over two thirds of Australians do not meet the minimum level of physical activity prescribed by health experts. This has been blamed for a range of common ailments – it is well known that a lack of regular exercise can contribute to chronic physical illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and heart conditions. What is less well known is the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on the mind.

Good mental health is fundamental to our overall physical wellbeing – recent federal government health funding gives recognition to this. It might seem obvious, but we often forget that the health of mind and body are interconnected, and when one functions well, the other improves, too.

A number of studies have looked at the relationship between depression and exercise.

Exercise not only has a preventative effect – it is clear that people who exercise regularly are less susceptible to depression and anxiety than those who don’t – it has been shown to be an effective treatment for people who show signs of mild to moderate depression.


According to the Black Dog Institute, a clinical and research facility specialising in depression, there is scientific evidence that 16 weeks of regular exercise is as effective as prescription antidepressants in tackling depression.

Exercise has a positive effect on the balance of chemicals in the brain. During exercise, feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins are released, and ‘fight or flight’ trigger adrenalin is expended rather than being allowed to find an outlet in anxiety and stress.

Moreover, physical exercise can give us something to look forward to, provide a social outlet, allay worries about health and fitness, increase energy levels, and improve self-esteem. All these factors can lessen the severity of anxiety and depression. Exercise also increases the likelihood of getting a good night’s sleep, a crucial component of good mental health.

“There is a physiological benefit to exercise – we know that undertaking exercise releases positive endorphins in the brain, which enhances mood,” Beyond Blue deputy CEO Dr Nicole Highet says. “In addition, there are behavioural benefits to do with goal-setting and a sense of achievement in mastering a particular task. There are also social benefits to do with connecting people and increasing their sociability. This can assist people who are depressed who are often quite isolated.”

One of the hallmarks of depression is a lack of motivation to do anything. Without a circuit breaker – fresh air, a change of environment, engaging in a task – negative thoughts tend to circulate and stay in the mind. Exercise is a simple motivator that can get you out the door and from there the change of scene can remove you from the cycle of upsetting thoughts.

Exercise can be both the goal and the journey

When you’re exercising to help lift your mood, the journey is as important as the destination. While goal-setting is still integral to helping you assess your achievements, the way you exercise also becomes important.


Exercise means a change of environment and scene. It gets you out of the house, and often it’s the simple interaction with the outside world that can help to change your perspective.

“Start with something simple,” says Dr Highet. “Something that’s not going to put too much stress on your body or is overly ambitious where you’re setting yourself up to fail. Do something that is a small set task and set goals over a number of weeks.”

“The other thing that’s really important with exercise is to do something that’s enjoyable for you. Quite often, people with depression, particularly, don’t get any enjoyment out of life or day-to-day activities – it’s important for them to do something from which they get satisfaction.”

Studies have shown that both aerobic and strength or resistance training have beneficial effects on mood, so you can choose the activity that suits you best. Connect with those things that have positive associations for you personally.

Take a swim at a beach that invokes happy childhood memories, or do something a little out of the ordinary, like roller-blading or dancing. Get on a bike or pull on your hiking boots if the fresh air and scenery of the outdoors help to instil a sense of wellbeing. Yoga or Pilates can be great ‘mind sports’, allowing you to focus your energy on being calm.

If you feel the need for company, team activities like netball, or sports like squash or tennis, can be great ways to socialise and interact with others. Other people can also help to motivate you – it might feel like a drag to put your trainers on and go for a solitary run, but the prospect of seeing your friends or being part of a team victory might just be the push you need to get out and active.


“If you engage with other people as part of your plan, that can help with reinforcement of the exercise and also keep you motivated and on track – if you’ve made a commitment to other people, they can spur you on to be part of that activity,” says Dr Highet. And once you’re on the court, the inertia tends to melt away.

Exercise also often gives the troubled mind time to think things through without dwelling on negative feelings. “Exercise can block negative thoughts or distract people from underlying worries or concerns that they might have as part of anxiety or depression,” says Dr Highet.

“The act of setting yourself a task, having something to focus on, and the physiological benefits of exercising, all reduce negative thinking and the impact of the negative thinking on your mood.”