Research suggests that regular exercise may increase the level of brain serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood, sleep, libido, appetite and other functions. Problems in the serotonin pathways of the brain have been linked to depression. Exercise can also increase the level of endorphins in the brain which have ‘mood-lifting’ properties.

Regular exercise may alleviate symptoms of depression by: 

– Increasing energy levels 

– Improving sleep 

– Distracting from worries and rumination 

– Providing social support and reducing loneliness if exercise is done with other people 

– Increasing a sense of control and self-esteem by allowing people to take an active role in their own wellbeing. 

Key points about the role of exercise in treating depression:

– Regular exercise can be an effective treatment by itself for non-melancholic depressions (particularly for people who were previously sedentary or inactive).

– Exercise does not need to be extremely vigorous to be helpful for depression – a brisk walk each day can be beneficial. 

– For those with a melancholic depression and experiencing a lack of energy in the morning, immediate exercise on getting out of bed can be beneficial. 

Evidence for the benefits of exercise in managing depression:

Regular exercise can be an effective way to relieve some forms of depression and is often a neglected strategy in the management of depression.

Numerous studies have shown that people who exercise regularly experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who do not exercise regularly. Trials have also shown that regular exercise of moderate intensity can be an effective adjunctive treatment by itself for both melancholic and non-melancholic depression.

In fact, 16 weeks of regular exercise has been found to be equally effective as antidepressant medication in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. A recent study found that an increase in physical activity from inactive to three times a week resulted in a 20% decrease in the risk of depression over five years.

Both aerobic exercise (e.g. brisk walking, cycling or jogging) and resistance or strength training (e.g. weight-lifting) have been found to be helpful in treating depression.

Other benefits of exercise:

In addition to being helpful for managing depression, regular exercise has numerous physical health benefits. These benefits include prevention of multiple (including life-threatening) medical conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, strokes and certain types of cancers.

For extra health and fitness, it is recommended that adults (who are able) should also participate in a vigorous activity that makes them ‘huff and puff’ (e.g. jogging, squash, rowing). For best results, vigorous exercise should be done for 30 minutes or more on three to four days per week (on top of moderate exercise). 

Ultimately, for people who are very inactive, health benefits can be gained by becoming slightly more active. A little activity is better than none at all, and more is better than a little.

Exercise recommendations:

The National Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults and Older Australians recommends:

– A minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most, preferably all, days of the week; An example of ‘moderate intensity’ exercise is brisk walking where a slight increase in breathing and heart rate is noticeable. 

– Exercising for at least 10 minutes at a time – the 30 minutes total does not need to be continuous; Short sessions of different activities can be combined to make up a total of 30 minutes exercise or more each day. 

–  Being active in as many ways as possible each day (e.g. using the stairs instead of a lift).

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