Exercise and depression

Exercise and depression

How does exercise affect your mood?

Research shows that exercise is protective against depression, and even severe depression like major depressive disorder. A 2017 study from the Black Dog Institute found that as little as one hour a week of exercise can prevent depression. They found that people who did no exercise at all had a 44% increased chance of developing depression.  

Regular exercise can also have the following mental health benefits:

  • promotes the release of feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine
  • distracts you from worries and overthinking
  • provides social support and reduces loneliness
  • increases a sense of control and self-esteem
  • improves your sleep and energy levels

It can also help you think clearly as it pumps more blood to your brain.

How much exercise should you be doing?

Even though as little as one hour a week can make a difference, the National Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults and Older Australians suggest that we need to be getting a weekly minimum of either:

  • 150 to 300 minutes of “moderate intensity” physical activity, or
  • 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity.

If you can’t manage this much exercise to begin with, any increase in physical activity will start to benefit your physical and mental health. This includes both planned and incidental activity.

Does exercise intensity matter?

A 2016 study found that exercising at any intensity was beneficial for your mental health and that there was no difference between exercising at low or high intensity. The same study recommends using exercise as a management tool for depression.

Getting started

If you’re new to exercise or starting an exercise program, it’s important to see your doctor beforehand. It’s also important to remember to be kind to yourself and try not to be too self-critical. If you’re feeling low, the hardest part is getting started. Once you’re in a routine, it’ll be easier to keep going.

Beyond Blue highlight the following tips to help you get moving:

1. Find your reason – you’re more likely to stick with a new behaviour if it’s linked to something you really value in life. Ask yourself, “why will exercise make my life better in a meaningful way?” It might be to help you overcome depression and get your life back on track, to gain more energy for your kids or to improve your general health for a longer life.

2. Start small – and we mean really small. Just add five per cent to what you’re currently doing. If you’re stuck on the couch, just walking in your street each day is a great start.

3. Make it part of your routine – the more decisions you have to make about when to exercise, the closer you’ll come to deciding not to. Timetable your exercise into your weekly schedule so you aren’t relying as much on willpower.

4. Do something you enjoy – exercise doesn’t have to be serious. If you hate running or going to the gym, you’re unlikely to keep it up. Find an activity you enjoy (or at least don’t dislike) and you’re more likely to keep doing it.

5. Set goals and monitor progress – it’s very rewarding to track your progress towards a specific goal. It makes every exercise session feel purposeful.

6. Make a commitment to others – you’re less likely to opt out if you have a friend or team relying on you to be there.

Where to get more support

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you might find some of the follow services helpful.

Get help now online or over the phone

If you or someone close to you needs help now, there are phonelines and websites available.

For immediate help in a crisis:

For general mental health support:

Seeing your GP

Your GP can assess you, provide a treatment plan which may include medication, and refer you to a mental health specialist if necessary. A GP can create a mental health plan for you, which means Medicare subsidises up to 10 sessions with a mental health professional.

More information










All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.

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