Exercise protects against depression

Just one hour of exercise a week may help in warding off depression.

Exercise may play a vital role in combating mental health struggles.

A study by NSW’s Black Dog Institute has shown that regular exercise can protect against depression, regardless of age or gender.

A team of international researchers used data from the Health Study of Nord-Trøndelag County (HUNT study), one of the largest health survey ever performed, which surveyed almost 34,000 Norwegian participants.

“We’ve known for some time that exercise has a role to play in treating symptoms of depression, but this is the first time we have been able to quantify the preventative potential of physical activity in terms of reducing future levels of depression,” said Associate Professor Samuel Harvey from Black Dog Institute and UNSW, a lead author of the study.

Experts estimate that 44 percent of people in Australia will experience a mental health event in their lifetime. In a given year, one million Australians will suffer from depression and two million from anxiety.

However, according to the Better Health Channel, almost 40 percent of Australians surveyed did not exercise in the previous week. In addition, around 62 percent of Australian adults do not meet recommended physical activity guidelines.

The research

In the health study, researchers asked healthy subjects about their exercise habits. Then, at a later date, these same people answered questions about their mental health. Specifically if they were experiencing anxiety or depression.

The results, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, showed that people who did no exercise had a 44 per cent increased chance of developing depression compared to people who exercised just up to two hours a week.

The intensity of the exercise did not matter; even a small amount of low-intensity exercise is beneficial.

The researchers found that 12 percent of depression cases could have been avoided with one hour’s exercise per week.

This positive effect of exercise, however, was not shown for anxiety.

“Regular leisure-time exercise of any intensity provides protection against future depression but not anxiety,” the study concluded.

“These results highlight the great potential to integrate exercise into individual mental health plans and broader public health campaigns,” said Professor Harvey. “If we can find ways to increase the population’s level of physical activity even by a small amount, then this is likely to bring substantial physical and mental health benefits.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


Harvey, S.B. et al. (2017.) ‘Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study.’ American Journal of Psychiatry. Published online: October 03, 2017  |  https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.16111223

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