Mental Health and Exercise

Mental Health and Exercise

The number of people experiencing mental health disorders has increased. Of Australians aged 18-65, 20% will experience mental health disorders in any one year. These can include depression, PTSD, anxiety and substance abuse disorders.

Mental health disorder patients are being referred for Exercise Physiology programs.  This is due to the increasing evidence of the benefits of exercise for mental health. Exercising starts a biological cascade of events that results in many health benefits.  Some of these benefits include the release feel-good endorphins and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance our sense of well-being.

How exercise helps mental health

In populations with mental health disorders, regular physical activity has been shown to:

  • Improve cardiovascular fitness and reduce all-cause mortality risk
  • Help control weight gain induced by medication (despite any side effects, medication still plays an important role in treatment)
  • Improve chronic disease outcomes, especially type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease
  • Decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Improve sleep quality and increase self-esteem

Getting started with Exercise

When starting to exercise to benefit mental health?  One of the most important things is to create a positive habit. Here are some tips to create a beneficial habit for mental health.

  1. Start simple – If you can only manage one 10 minute walk a week, start there! Creating small daily wins can help increase your belief that you can do more.
  2. Find something that you enjoy –  An activity that is enjoyable is likely to feel less like ‘work’ and more like ‘fun’.
  3. Get out into nature – Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. Try body surfing or just go for a hike.
  4. Make it social – Join in a group activity or go for a walk with family and friends.
  5. Make a plan – Sit down and map out your week and schedule times when you can exercise. It’s always good having more times scheduled than you plan to exercise, because stuff happens!
  6. Overcome your barriers – What’s stopping you? Write them down. You could engage the help of an Accredited Exercise Physiologist who can help you work through your barriers and help create plans to overcome them.

How much Exercise is needed to benefit mental health

Aerobic exercise and weightlifting have been shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of major depression. Currently the Australian Physical activity guidelines recommends adults (18-64 years) accumulate 150 to 300 minutes  of moderate intensity physical activity.  Alternatively, 75 to 150 minutes  of vigorous intensity physical activity. It is also recommended to perform resistance exercises of 3 sets of 8 repetitions at least 3 times per week.

It’s important to remember that it’s not about what type of exercise is the best kind, it’s about what works for you.  Doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Even one workout a week is known to have great benefits. It’s important to be easy on yourself.  It takes time for the benefits of exercise to be noticeable. Studies show a significant reduction in depressive symptoms after eight weeks.


Find an Accredited Exercise Physiologist –

Exercise Right for your Mental Health Resource Book – Access Here


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2009). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 4326.0, 2007. ABS: Canberra.