Why is exercise good for mental health?

By HBF

4 minutes

18 November 2021

A happy woman outdoors with a yoga mat

Did you know that exercise can help treat and prevent mental health problems?1 An expert in mental health research explains how and why.

That’s right. Regular exercise can reduce stress, alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and even help prevent you from having mental health problems in the future.1

To better understand how this works and how you can benefit, we spoke with Dr Joanna Crawford, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute.

In this article


What are the mental health benefits of exercise?

Research shows exercise can benefit your mental health in five foundational ways:1

  • Reduce symptoms and help with recovery from conditions like depression and anxiety
  • Reduce your stress levels
  • Improve your sleep
  • Help prevent mental health problems

Who knew you could literally jog away from stress? Or stair-climb yourself up from one of life’s valleys?

It’s good news.

And while all of these positive impacts are important, you should pay special attention to that last bullet point.

Not only can exercise help improve your mental health – it can help protect it.

Can exercise help protect your mental health? 

“We know there’s a lot of evidence for exercise preventing future depression,” Dr Crawford says.

“A study by a researcher at the Black Dog Institute found that just one hour of exercise a week – even if that’s broken across the week – was seen to significantly prevent the onset of future depression,” she continues.

And that makes this information valuable to everyone.

Not just people struggling with a mental health problem. Not just people who are able to work out for an hour a day five days a week.

If you can get moving for just one hour a week, you can help protect your own mental health.

But why is exercise good for mental health?

Well, we have some ideas, but the short answer is that researchers are still connecting the dots.

“There’s no real one factor and the science is still in progress,” Dr Crawford says. “There are a range of biochemical, psychological and social factors at play.”

That said, here are a few possible explanations:2

  • Exercise can improve your sense of control, coping ability and self-esteem
  • Exercise can distract you from negative thoughts
  • Exercise increases your energy levels
  • Regular exercise can improve your sleep, and good sleep helps you regulate your mood
  • The levels of chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, stress hormones and endorphins, change when you exercise

“We also know that being in nature, and the social aspect of exercising with other people – even if it’s only one other person – can be beneficial as well,” Dr Crawford says.

So the real truth is that a whole heap of factors go into the link between exercise and mental health.

And although we don’t know which specific factors are at play, we do know that exercise can make a difference for people suffering from anxiety and depression – two of the most common mental health conditions in Australia.3

Exercise and depression

Studies show that exercise can help fight mild to moderate depression, and help prevent it.4

Exercise can help with symptoms of depression by increasing your levels of serotonin, which is involved in regulating mood, sleep, appetite and other functions.4

On the prevention side, the Black Dog Institute study found that an hour of exercise per week helps prevent depression.

But as effective as exercise can be, Dr Crawford reminds us that it should be used as an addition to other treatments – not all on its own.

“A person living with depression should continue to take on other parts of their treatment plan, psychological therapy or medication or other strategies,” she says.

Exercise and anxiety

Researchers think exercise may help with anxiety for many of the same reasons it helps with depression.

Regular exercise may alleviate symptoms of anxiety by increasing energy levels, improving sleep, and distracting from worries. 5

If exercise is done with other people, it can also provide social support, reduce loneliness and increase your sense of control and self-esteem.5

All that said, we still need more studies on the effects of exercise on the full range of anxiety disorders.

Tips to get started exercising when you’re feeling down

“For a lot of people experiencing mental health problems it can be really hard to get started with exercise,” Dr Crawford says.

This presents a catch-22 when it comes to exercise for mental health. This is also one reason why Dr Crawford is excited about the recent studies showing that even a little exercise helps.

“The Black Dog study found that one hour of exercise a week was helpful in preventing future depression – and that was regardless of the intensity of the exercise,” she says.

“So if you are finding it hard to get started, then start small. Take a short walk, take the stairs instead of the elevator, take the dog for a walk.”

 

When to seek help

“If anyone thinks that they may be experiencing depression or anxiety, or any other kind of medical condition, it’s always a great idea to speak to your GP and to find out about treatment options,” Dr Crawford says.

Your GP can assess your symptoms, make a diagnosis, create a health treatment plan, or refer you to a mental health professional.

Medicare can help cover some of the cost of mental health treatment. If you have private health insurance, you may also be covered for certain treatments in hospital or out of hospital.

Medicare can cover some of the cost of GP appointments, mental health treatment plans (including up to 10 sessions per year with a mental health professional), support from a social worker and psychiatric services when admitted to a public hospital.

If your health professional bulk bills, then Medicare will cover all eligible costs. If they don’t bulk bill, ask how much you’ll have to pay and what you’ll get back from Medicare.

 

For more information, visit Medicare’s website.

If you have an appropriate level of private health insurance cover, you could receive benefits for hospital psychiatric services (provided on hospital covers) and Psychology or Clinical Psychology consultations (provided on some extras covers).

Read more about what private health insurance covers for mental health.

Free support services

There are also some great free services available through mental health organisations such as:

For a full list of services recommended by the government, check out the Head to Health service providers page.

If you or someone you know is struggling, you’re not alone and there are several places you can turn to for help.


Sources:

  1. 1healthdirect – Exercise and mental health (2019)
  2. 2Better Health Channel – Exercise and mental health (2018)
  3. 3Australian Bureau of Statistics – National survey of mental health and wellbeing (2008)
  4. 4Black Dog Institute – Treatments for depression (2020)
  5. 5Black Dog Institute – Anxiety treatment (2021)

Disclaimer:

This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.