Psychological Benefits of Exercise With Depression

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In Australia, it is estimated that 45% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety. While depression and anxiety are different conditions, it is not uncommon for them to occur at the same time. Over half of those who experience depression also experience symptoms of anxiety. In some cases, one can lead to the onset of the other (Beyond Blue, 2014).


The treatment for depression and anxiety are multiple and have varying degrees of effectiveness. Research consistently shows that physical activity can assist improved physical health, life satisfaction, cognitive functioning and psychological well-being. Conversely, physical inactivity appears to be associated with the development of psychological disorders.


When you exercise, the body releases a naturally occurring substance known as endorphins. These hormonal compounds act as analgesics, which means they diminish the perception of pain and also act as sedatives. They are manufactured in your brain, spinal cord, and many other parts of your body and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neuron receptors endorphins bind to are the same ones that bind some pain medicines. However, unlike with morphine, the activation of these receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence (WebMD, 2014).


Mota-Pereira et al (2011) examined the effects on depression and functioning parameters of a moderate intensity exercise program, as an adjuvant to pharmacotherapy, in treatment-resistant major depressive disorder (MDD) patients – in which remission rates are often very low. Patients (total 155) were randomised into one of two groups: usual pharmacotherapy and usual pharmacotherapy in combination with aerobic exercise. The exercise program consisted of home-based 30-45 minute/ day walks on 5 days/ week over a 12 week period, with one supervised walk per week. Results indicated an improvement of all depression parameters amongst the exercise group when compared to both baseline values and to the control group. None of the patients within the control group showed response or remission, whilst 21% of those in the exercise group demonstrated improvements in response as well as a remission rate of 26%. The authors concluded that moderate intensity exercise may therefore, be a helpful and effective adjuvant therapy for treatment-resistant MDD.


Studies in this area are continuing to explore which kinds of exercise regimes are most effective or whether benefits last after treatment is ceased. It is suggested, that rather than thinking about exercise as a replacement for standard treatments such as anti-depressants or psychotherapy, supervised exercise regimes should be recommended as an add-on for people who are willing and able to attend.


Workplace Physiotherapy work alongside Clinical Psychologists to ensure multi-disciplinary management of depression and anxiety.


Ref: Mota-Pereira J, Silverio J, Carvalho S, Ribeiro JC, Fonte D, Ramos J. 2011 Moderate exercise improves depression parameters in treatment-resistant patients with major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research. Aug; 45(8):1005-11.


The comments above are the implicit advice of Workplace Physiotherapy. The views expressed are based on current evidence-based research and accepted best practice approaches. Unless otherwise stated, these comments are not the view of WorkCover NSW or any other professional body. No reproduction or forwarding of this advice is permitted without the consent of the author.


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