The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of  wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Carla Petty, Exercise Physiologist

Mental health includes our psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing, which in turn affects how we think, feel, behave, and interact with others. It is important at every stage of life. Our mental health fluctuates on a continuum, it is not fixed. We can move back and forth along this scale at different times during our lives in reaction to experiences or stressors, so it is important to either promote or adopt helpful coping mechanisms and strategies to maintain good mental health. 

One in five Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year. The WHO predicts that depression will be the number one health concern in both the developed and developing nations by 2030. Overwhelming research has indicated that exercise is both an effective form of treatment as well as a preventative tool in protecting against future incidents of depression. Studies show that anyone, despite their age, gender or location, can benefit both physically and mentally from exercise.

How exercise works

The benefits of exercise include improved memory, focus, thinking, productivity, physical health and life expectancy. It reduces stress and anxiety and can distract from negative thoughts. It also provides opportunity for social engagement.

Ultimately, exercise positively influences neurogenesis, neuroplasticity and neurochemistry. It has been shown to promote the growth of neurons and strengthen existing neural pathways in the central nervous system that are important for overall brain health and where individuals are better able to tolerate stress. 

Physical activity also stimulates the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin in the brain, which are critical in regulating mood and improving overall wellbeing. Exercise also plays an important role in reducing the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline in the body. 

Research also shows that people who suffer from chronic or prolonged stress and/or depression are at higher risk of developing negative side effects on the cardiovascular and immune system – again highlighting the importance to use exercise preventatively, as well as the interdependence between physical health and mental health. 

Types of exercise

Research has concluded that not one form of exercise is best in treating or preventing poor mental health, but rather it is important to find exercise that is enjoyable and works best for the individual and their circumstances. It is important they enjoy the form of exercise, otherwise they are unlikely to adhere to it in the long term. Exercise adherence is poorer in many people who suffer from mental illness, so methods to increase motivation must be included in programming considerations.

For mild to moderate depression, the effect of exercise is comparable to SSRI medication and psychotherapy; for severe depression, exercise is a valuable complementary therapy to traditional treatments. 

Health professionals recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most (preferably all) days of the week in preventing or managing mental health. It is important to note these 30 minutes do not need to be continuous; for instance, it can be broken up into 3 x 10-minute segments throughout the day. 

Moderate to vigorous intensity can be described as exercise that makes you “huff and puff”, however it is important to consider the individuals previous exercise history when prescribing a tailored program. 

When faced with poor mental health, sometimes the hardest step can be getting started. Australians of all ages are encouraged to seek professional exercise advice from an accredited exercise physiologist in conjunction with treating health professional(s) to prescribe a bespoke exercise plan.

Key messages
  • Good mental health is critical to overall wellbeing 
  • Exercise can improve brain function
  • The best exercise is the one that is most enjoyable.

References available on request

Author competing interests – nil