Can Exercise Really Help With Depression and Anxiety?

Worried Girl

Nearly three million Australians live with depression and/or anxiety, which affect their well-being, personal relationships, career and productivity, yet only 35% of Australians with anxiety and depression access treatment. [statistics]

Being a Personal Trainer, and having personally battled with clinically diagnosed Severe Depression among other related mental health issues, has positioned me in a unique place to passionately work alongside others who have or currently suffer with such disorders.

The power and privileges of being a Personal Trainer are often overlooked when it comes to our ability to positively impact the life of others.

Having a skill set which can help improve mental health, and support the work of crucially important health professionals such as psychologists and psychiatrists is extremely empowering.

Personal Trainers have the privilege of often becoming an important part of their client’s lives, therefore the opportunity to become a person of support.

My own personal journey with mental health and exercise is one of the key reasons I became a Personal Trainer after 2 previous Bachelor Degrees and multiple indoor and desk based jobs. Since discovering the power of movement and training, exercise has and continues to play a big role of my mental health management.

Regular exercise can be an effective way to help aid and relieve various forms of depression, yet is often a neglected strategy in the management of depression. Many of the medical professionals I’ve spoken to or personally worked with through the years have openly discussed this with me, agreeing with this view.

Regular exercise may help alleviate symptoms of depression by:

  • Increasing energy levels
  • Improving sleep
  • Distracting from worries and rumination
  • Providing social support and reducing loneliness (when exercise is done with other people)
  • Increasing a sense of control and self-esteem


Numerous studies have shown that people who exercise regularly experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who do not exercise regularly, whilst other trials have shown that regular exercise of moderate intensity can be an effective adjudicative treatment by itself.

According to Blackdog Institute, a recent study found that an increase of physical activity from inactive to three times a week resulted in a 20% decrease of the risk of depression over a five year period. [factsheet]

One study even found that 16 weeks of regular exercise were as equally effective as antidepressant medication in the treatment of mild to moderate depression.

But even with so much amazing research showcasing the power exercise can have on a person’s mental health, please do not let it stop you from reaching out and seeking professional help if you feel you may be suffering from a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.

In 2007, a study assigned 202 participants whom had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, with one of the following four treatments:

  • individual home exercise (aerobic exercise)
  • group exercise (aerobic exercise)
  • antidepressant medication (sertraline – an SSRI)
  • a placebo (sugar pill)

After 16 weeks of their prescribed treatment, the study showed that the placebo was the least effective, whilst the home based exercise and group exercise had similar remission rates to the antidepressant medication.

Whilst I do not recommend removing or replacing medications with exercise without the advice and guidance of a medical professional such as a GP, or specialist such as psychiatrist, I do believe in and advocate for the inclusion of exercise to other current mental health treatments such as therapy and medication.


  • It releases endorphins, which is known as the body’s own natural antidepressant.
  • It releases other neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which lift mood.
  • Exercise increases blood flow to the brain

Studies have revealed positive effects of exercise, in healthy people and in clinical populations regardless of gender and age. The benefits of exercise have been especially significant in subjects with an elevated levels of anxiety and depression due to the increased room for possible change.

To receive the maximal mental health benefit exercise can provide, it is suggest exercise should be conducted for 15 to 30 minutes and performed a minimum of three times a week for 8 to 10 weeks or longer. [research]

The medication in the previously mentioned 16 week study used a selective serotin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) which eases depressive symptoms by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is one of the chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) that carry signals between brain cells. SSRIs block the re-absorption (reuptake) of serotonin in the brain, making more serotonin available.

In addition, studies have shown the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a chemical that promotes brain health, learning and memory, is reduced in depression. [research]

Physical activity has been found to elevate levels of this neurotransmitter thereby improving depressive symptoms. [research]

Regular light to moderate aerobic exercise has also been shown to reduce blood viscosity, thereby increasing blood flow to the brain which has been shown to decrease in those suffering from depression. [research]



Though a majority of studies on the effects of exercise on mental health have been conducted using cardiovascular, specifically aerobic exercise using large muscle groups of moderate and low intensity such as jogging, swimming, cycling or walking as a stimulus, both aerobic exercise as well as resistance or strength training (e.g. weight-lifting) have been found to be helpful in treating depression.



Group Fitness

Helps to build and strengthen social bonds and help fight the isolation many sufferers of depression and anxiety face. According to research from the Black Dog Institute, when exercise is done with others it can provide a means of social support and reduce feelings of loneliness.

Whilst the additional benefits of group fitness requires more research to truly understand whether group exercise offers superior mental health benefits to individual exercise, studies and society are beginning to increasingly understanding and embrace just how important community connection is in maintaining a healthy mental state.


Outdoor Physical Activity

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues may all be eased by time in the great outdoors, especially when that’s combined with exercise.

One study found that walks in the forest were specifically associated with decreased levels of anxiety and bad moods, whilst another found that “nature may be useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments for MDD”, Major Depressive Disorder. [research]

Furthermore, evidence of a multi-study shows green exercise (activity in the presence of nature) leads to positive short and long-term health outcomes. This multi-study analysis assessed the best regime of dose(s) of acute exposure to green exercise required to improve self-esteem and mood, known as indicators of mental health. The analysis of 10 earlier studies showed “every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood; the presence of water generated greater effects,” with self-esteem improving especially for those with mental illnesses. [research] [research]



It can be difficult for someone suffering with depression or anxiety to get out of bed, let alone leave the home to exercise. This is where the right personal trainer can be helpful with their support and accountability.

If you do wish to benefit from the support and accountability a Personal Trainer can provide, it’s important to find and work with the right trainer for you. The responsibilities associated with working alongside a person suffering with depression, anxiety or like issues can be confronting, and not every trainer out there will be willing or able to support someone going through something so challenging. But there are definitely trainers out there which can positively add to the life and health of someone facing such challenges.

Some points to consider before commencing with a trainer.

A good trainer:

  • Will work with you to set goals you feel are appropriate
    • Setting unrealistic goals can be frustrating at the best of times. Throw in anxiety or depression, and the addition of stressors can be devastating.
      Selecting appropriate goals with your trainer, even if it’s simply showing up to the session may be enough for a person to feel a sense of accomplishment in their session, a feeling which can often be hard to come by. When first beginning training, goals based around intensely competitive exercises or heavy weights may add unnecessary stress and frustration, therefore should in many cases be avoided. Setting goals that are likely to see consistent little wins from session to session are ideal, as each small win provides a little boost of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine which is known to boost motivation and with a sense of accomplishment, self-esteem.
  • Will encourage a level of training intensity that is right for you
    • Depression and anxiety can be crippling and isolating. Leaving the house can seem like climbing a mountain, let alone leaving to exercise.
    • A large portion of personal trainers have a tendency to push their clients as hard as they safely can as it’s not uncommon for people to view pushing physical limits as an important factor in justifying the financial cost. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this in many cases, that does not make this way of training right for everyone.
    • Depression and anxiety can be exhausting, and the level of energy a client suffering with such disorders can vary. Being flexible with training intensity and programming is essential, as just showing up can be physically and emotionally draining, let alone finding the energy to move. Whilst exercising can increase a person’s energy, it’s important to allow and guide clients to a training level that will allow them to recover sufficiently and maintain a positive level of energy for the rest of their day.
  • Show understanding and respect for you
  • Will educate and empower you
  • Will ask about and research medications


A good trainer:

  • Will not use body shaming to motivate
    • As with any relationship, not every trainer will be for every client and vise-versa.
    • There are many training styles Personal Trainers can use to motivate their clients, so it’s important to find and work with a trainer that provides you with the type of encouragement and motivation you gel with. Whilst some Personal Trainers are inflexible in their setting of expectations and motivation methods, others may take a more nurturing approach. This is why meeting and discussing your needs with a trainer before committing to training is something I highly recommend. Aggressive and authoritarian training methods will unlikely help someone suffering from depression and/or anxiety, so when meeting a trainer, it can be beneficial to discuss how you wish to be treated, and get a sense of the trainers level of patience and understanding.
    • But if you do find yourself a few session in feeling overwhelmed, or feeling like the fit just isn’t right with your trainer, it’s important (though it can be hard) to speak up, and if need be leave to seek out another trainer or method of exercising that fits you and your needs.
  • Will not pressure you into one training style, especially if it doesn’t suit your wants and needs
    • A good trainer will incorporate activities you take pleasure in and feel capable of completing. Partaking in something you enjoy will not only make the experience more enjoyable, but may make wanting to exercise easier.
  • Will not promise quick results or fixes
  • Will respect your boundaries, and not be forceful when you say ‘no’ or ‘stop’
  • Will not sell or push supplements on you

Harmony Balance

Like all forms of therapy, the effects exercise can have on a person suffering from depression or anxiety can vary.  Whilst some people may respond extremely positively and see exercise completely revitalise their life, others may find physical activity, however that may be, only provides a modest short-term benefit. But even so, the beneficial effects of exercise on physical health are undeniable, and medical professionals and researchers alike now openly recommend all people should be physically active for their physical, and now as research is showing mental, health and well-being.

For more information, you can read Psychology of Physical Activity: Determinants, well-being and interventions by Stuart Biddle, and Nanette Mutrie.

This book brings together a wealth of up to date information about exercise behaviour including:

  • Motivation and psychological factors associated with activity or inactivity;
  • The psychological outcomes of exercising including the ‘feel–good’ factor;
  • Understanding specific clinical populations;
  • Interventions and applied practice in the psychology of physical activity;
  • Current trends and future directions in research and practice.



For more information on being active or starting your Personal Training journey, please don’t hesitate to leave me a comment or contact me directly on 0414 392 746 or email eva@konquerfitness.com.au

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