Most people are aware of the physical benefits of exercise and are also possibly aware of the health related benefits that reduce the risk of chronic conditions. However, are you aware of the benefits exercise can have on mental health? Numerous studies have been conducted that show that exercise can assist with depression, anxiety and other forms of mental health issues.

The relationship between mood and exercise was established in the 1970’s but it is only recently that studies have been conducted into the benefits of exercise and the treatment of mental health disorders.

Exercise Is Preventative As Well As A Treatment


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Regular exercise has been identified as a protective mechanism to prevent the onset of depressive disorders. One of the original studies conducted over an 18 year period, found those who exercised regularly were at lower risk of developing a depressive disorder than those who didn’t exercise or ceased exercising after a period of time. In respect to assisting the management of depression, a meta-analysis of clinical trials discovered, that by comparison to no treatment, exercise reduced depression equally as well as cognitive therapy and is therefore considered an established treatment for depression, and it is typically evaluated as an adjunctive treatment to pharmacotherapy or psychological therapy.

Exercise has also been shown to improve stress management, general well-being and self-esteem. It is recommended that exercise dose should meet minimum public health guidelines for maintaining health. It has been suggested that higher doses may have stronger effects on mental health, but may be more difficult to implement in practice.

What Type of Exercise Is Best?


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For treating depression and anxiety, most studies have evaluated aerobic exercise as superior to resistance or mixed exercise interventions. Most studies have indicated that higher doses of exercise have a better dose/treatment outcome. However, for anxiety symptoms the trend wasn’t linear, with exercise most effective when the dose approached 12.5 kcal/kg, and then becoming less effective with higher doses. It is important to consider that although higher doses may be more effective for mental health, they may be less likely to be achieved in practice. Clinical trials are needed to establish specific dose related responses that have an impact on mechanisms that promote an anti-depressant effect.


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Based on the limited scientific evidence, the minimum recommendations for mental health benefits of exercise are at least 30 minutes, 3 times per week at a moderate to vigorous intensity for a period of at least 8 weeks. Larger doses may be more effective if this is feasible for the individual and tailoring the exercise to the person’s preferences is important to maintain adherence, particularly if individuals have a serious mental health disorder. As with any exercise it may be necessary to slowly build up the amount exercise, and focus on increasing daily physical activity that suits your individual needs and capabilities.



ACSM (2014). Resource manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. 7th Ed. LWW.


Morgan, A.J., Parker, A.G.,  Alvarez-Jimenez, M.,  Jorm, A.F.1 (2013). Exercise and Mental Health: An Exercise and Sports Science Australia Commissioned Review. JEP. 16(4)