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Exercise and Depression 2013-04-18











The following is not intended as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment

The statistics are staggering: 45% of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. One of the most common mental illnesses is depression; the World Health Organisation estimates that depression will be the number one health concern by 2030.

Depression is a common experience; we have all felt depressed about arguments, bad days at work, money worries, sometimes we feel down for no reason at all. However depression can become an illness when:

  • The mood state is severe
  • It lasts for 2 weeks or more
  • It interferes with our ability to function at home or at work.

Some of the signs of a depressed mood include lowered self esteem, change in sleep patterns, changes in appetite or weight, less ability to control emotions such as pessimism, anger, guilt, irritability and anxiety, reduced capacity to experience pleasure, hobbies and interests drop off, poor concentration, reduced motivation and lower energy levels. For Rachel a LES MILLS instructor of 5 years who has kindly offered to share her story said she realised there was a deeper issue when crying herself to sleep most nights turned in to crying at work and avoiding leaving her desk so she wouldn’t have to see or speak to anyone. The point Rachel realised there was something deeper going on came when she was pulled over by a police officer and “completely lost it, crying hysterically to the point where I couldn’t even breathe”.

A Spoonful of Exercise

As part of a holistic management approach exercise has been identified as one of the methods of alleviating the symptoms of depression. For Rachel exercise has always been a passion and recognizes that doing something she loves is going to help her symptoms and always feels better after her workouts; she may just be on to something:

  • Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly experience fewer symptoms of depression than those who do not exercise regularly. Trials have shown that 16 weeks of regular exercise is equally effective as anti-depression medication in the treatment of mild to moderate depression
  • Research also suggests that regular exercise may increase the level of brain serotonin, which amongst other functions regulates mood (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 also have mood-lifting properties
  • Exercising in a group increases the possibility of social contact and therefore could help to address the feelings of isolation and loneliness that can accompany depression
  • Exercising often involves learning and perfecting a new skill or task. A person can feel better about themselves once they have successfully mastered the ability to do a particular class, exercise program or achieved a goal (such as completing a fun-run)
  • Finally exercise has a diversionary benefit; focusing attention and efforts on an exercise program can help divert a person away from negative thoughts.


While exercise alleviates some of the symptoms of depression, often it’s the last thing someone wants to do when feeling depressed (feeling tired and less motivated are two common symptoms of depression). While Rachel says getting to the gym for her isn’t a problem, it’s the routine she has set herself that makes exercising a normal part of a given day. She admits that sometimes it is a struggle, but on those days does what she can at the gym and acknowledges that something is better than nothing. While Rachel is a seasoned exerciser, there are strategies that can help motivate people to gradually become more active:

Make a plan

  • Start slowly and build up gradually: for example, for a non-exerciser start with a 10 minute walk each morning and gradually increase
  • Set short term realistic goals for exercising each week: avoid over-committing to start with. For example plan two sessions per week you know you can commit to that fits in with your lifestyle

Keep motivated

  • Keep an activity diary to document daily exercise. Also write down the specific benefits that you would like to gain from exercise and refer back to these to help with motivation, also jot down the situations that you expect would make it more difficult to exercise and develop a plan to address these (for example if you feel too tired to do a full session of exercise, still do something such as a short walk to keep you in the routine)
  • Use a pedometer
  • Join a gym – as instructors we can vouch for the power and motivation of being part of a group. Although it is common to not feel like socializing when experiencing depression, it can be helpful to include others in exercise for support and motivation
  • Reward yourself when you achieve your short-term exercise goal.


 “I feel proud of myself after a workout that I've achieved something. Mostly it's just about letting go of my thoughts and losing myself in the music and the workout”.



With thanks to the resources from the Black Dog Institute, Beyond Blue and to Rachel for sharing her story.