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What exercise is best for depression?

03 October, 2017
Exercise for depression

Exercise vs depression

Exercise is a great tool for managing depression, and the links between mental wellness and getting your sweat on are only getting stronger. With such a wide variety of exercises, specialities within those exercises, as well as sports and other physically competitive activities, we had to ask: what exercise or exercises are best for depression?

Running vs lifting for depression

Exercise for depression

Can you sprint towards mental health faster than you can lift yourself out of depression? Two studies investigated the effects of running vs lifting in subjects who were experiencing depression, and they both came to very similar results.

Study 1: 40 women diagnosed with depression were tasked with either running or weight lifting 4 times a week over 8 weeks, with reviews performed at 1, 7 and 12 months.

Source: Running Versus Weight Lifting in the Treatment of Depression

Study 2: 90 depressed patients were assigned aerobic exercise (jogging/brisk walking) or non-aerobic exercise (strength-training, stretching, relaxation, coordination and flexibility training) for 60 minutes, 3 times a week, for 8 weeks.

Source: The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed

Both studies found there were no noticeable differences in the quality of exercise when it came to the relief of symptoms of depression.

Which is great news, but still leaves us with a new question – what exercise is best for me to manage depression?

Choosing an exercise to help manage depression

The first and most obvious way to choose an exercise is by throwing yourself into an activity you find enjoyable! If you’re after a more specific, personal answer however, you could see how well your exercise fits to the prevailing hypotheses of why exercise helps with depression.

Thermogenic hypothesis

Exercising raises your core body temperature (as long as you’re trying hard enough), and it’s thought that this temperature change can reach specific regions of the brain. In turn, this might lead to a feeling of relaxation and reduction in muscular tension.

Ask yourself – am I exercising hard enough to raise my core temperature?

Endorphin hypothesis

When we’re pumping iron or watching the road disappear beneath our feet, our bodies are releasing the feel-good drug: endorphins. However, there is contention is this theory. The kind of endorphins released during these exercises are ‘plasma endorphins’, which might not be reflective of endorphins in the brain. What we do know, from the layman’s perspective, is that exercise feels great!

Ask yourself – do I feel good during and after my exercise?

Monoamine hypothesis

Depression has the nasty side-effect of diminishing of neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine), and there’s a chance that exercise can help restore them. This is a harder hypothesis to prove, as the only ways to do so involve invasive surgeries.

Ask yourself – do you feel like your symptoms have lessened over time?

Distraction hypothesis

As the name implies, the distraction hypothesis proposes that, during exercise, our attention is diverted away from our problems. Results surrounding this explanation are inconclusive, but the principle remains strong, so…

Ask yourself – is my exercise demanding all of my attention and concentration?

Self-efficacy hypothesis

Basically, being able to finish a task or achieve a goal can help with self-esteem and intrinsic self-value. It can help break cycles of rumination or give someone the chance they need to succeed when they feel like they’re failing.

Ask yourself – am I reaching goals during the course of my exercise?


Ultimately, any exercise is good, so whether you choose to lift weights, swim, cycle, trampoline dodgeball or anything in between, you’re actively working for better mental health.

If you need support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit or call the Beyond Blue Support Service on 1300 224 636 or visit

If you’re a CBHS member with hospital cover or packaged product, you maybe eligible for our Mental Health Program. For more information on the program, contact CBHS’ Health and Wellness team on 02 9685 7567 or email at

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