Doing regular physical activity is a good way to help prevent or manage mild depression. There are many views on how exercise helps people with depression, but it is not yet known which kind of exercise is best or whether the benefits are lost if exercise is stopped.
Keeping active can:
- help lift mood through improved fitness and the release of natural chemicals in the brain
- help improve sleeping patterns
- increase energy levels
- help block negative thoughts or distract people from daily worries
- help people feel less alone if they exercise with others.
Physical activity increases your wellbeing. The current recommendation is at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most, and preferably all, days of the week. However, people with depression may find it difficult to get started or get motivated, or continue to exercise on a long-term basis.
Compared to people without depression, people with depression generally have lower fitness levels. Exercise may also change levels of chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, endorphins and stress hormones.
While we all feel sad, moody or low from time to time, some people experience these feelings intensely, for long periods of time (weeks, months or even years) and sometimes without any apparent reason. Depression is more than just a low mood – it’s a serious condition that has an impact on both physical and mental health. One in five women and one in eight men will experience depression at some point in their lives.
While the exact cause of depression isn't known, a number of things can be associated with its development. Generally, depression does not result from a single event, but from a combination of recent events and other longer-term or personal factors (such as family history, personality, serious medical illness or drug and alcohol use).
Exercise and depression evidence
Some studies have found that exercise can be a moderately helpful treatment for mild to moderate depression in adults, and may be as helpful in preventing or treating mild to moderate depression as psychological therapy and antidepressants.
The benefits that can be attained from exercise depend on the amount of exercise that is undertaken. Most studies showing that exercise was helpful used aerobic exercise (such as running or walking), for at least 30 minutes, three times a week, for at least eight weeks. However, more research is needed to work out the best type of exercise, how often and for how long it should be done, and whether it is better in a group or individually.
Tips to help you get started
- Start simple – increase your activity levels gradually to improve your self-confidence and build motivation for more energetic activities. Start with simple activities such as shopping, driving, gardening or small household tasks.
- Do what is enjoyable – people with anxiety or depression often lose interest and pleasure in doing things they once enjoyed. Plan activities that you used to find enjoyable, interesting, relaxing or satisfying with friends or family – with time the pleasure you feel from doing these activities will return.
- Include other people – people with anxiety or depression often withdraw from others, but continuing to socialise is an important part of recovery. Staying connected with friends and family can help increase wellbeing, confidence and provide opportunities to socialise.
- Make a plan – planning a routine can help people become more active. Make sure some form of exercise is included each day. Try to stick to the plan as closely as possible, but be flexible.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Your local community health centre
- beyondblue Support Service 24 hours 7 days a week helpline Tel. 1300 22 4636
- Lifeline Tel. 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline Tel. 1800 55 1800
- SANE Australia Helpline Tel. 1800 18 SANE (7263)
- SuicideLine Victoria Tel. 1300 651 251 – for counselling, crisis intervention, information and referral (24 hours, 7 days)
Things to remember
- Regular physical activity is a good way to help prevent or manage mild depression.
- Research shows that keeping active can help lift mood, improve sleeping patterns, and increase energy levels.
- Exercise can also help block negative thoughts or distract people for daily worries.
- Exercising with others is a good way to help people feel less alone.
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