How hard should you go when exercising for depression?

It is accepted worldwide that exercise is an effective treatment and management tool for mood related disorders, including depression.


In fact, exercise is listed as a recommended part of treatment in the American Psychiatric Association guidelines for treatment, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (UK) and the Canadian Psychological Association guidelines. As well as having a significant effect on mood, regular exercise can help to reduce the risk of diseases commonly associated with depression such as heart disease and diabetes, the rates of which are higher in people with a mental illness (Rozanski, 2012).

As an accredited exercise physiologist, I have to consider the time, type, frequency and intensity of the exercise I give to a client to complete. Today I’m sharing my thoughts about what the best intensity is for exercise for depression.

What is exercise intensity?


When talking about exercise intensity, there are many ways of categorising it. The simplest way is low intensity (you can talk and even sing while moving), moderate intensity (you can still talk but you don’t have enough breath to sing) and vigorous intensity (you can’t talk without puffing in-between words, and you definitely couldn’t sing!)

 exercise right for condition4


What is the most effective intensity to improve mood?


  • Exercise and Sports Science Australia recommends using guidelines similar to that for the general public – moderate to vigorous intensity a few times a week.
  • Another review from 2014 found that there were too many different results to suggest an optimal intensity.
  • Different studies have shown beneficial results with everything from walking and yoga (low intensity) to 80% of maximum weight training (high intensity


While this might be confusing, I suggest looking at the silver lining: any intensity from low to vigorous could be beneficial, depending on the person exercising!


One aspect stood out as a common factor in many studies: the recommendation to let clients choose their preferred intensity. Why?


  • Preferred exercise intensity compared to practitioner-prescribed exercise intensity in this study led to significantly lower levels of depression, higher self-esteem and improved self-reported quality of life
  • The participants in the study who chose their own intensity had higher adherence rates, which means they exercised more often than the others – there’s no point having an effective exercise prescription if you don’t show up to do it!
  • Perception of choice has been shown to increase intrinsic motivation (important for maintaining regular exercise in the community once you leave the care of your treating practitioner)


What does this mean for me?


If you’re looking to start using exercise as a way to manage your mood, I advise you speak with an accredited exercise physiologist. Although it’s possible that any intensity might work for you, it’s important to have clear goals, strategies and plans in place to ensure you find an exercise program you can stick to. An AEP can also make sure any other health conditions are taken into account.


Exercise Right’s top 5 tips for exercising for depression


  • 1. Choose an activity you enjoy – no running on a treadmill if you hate gyms!
  • 2. Get outside – being in nature has extra mood boosting properties
  • 3. Get an accountability buddy – this might be a friend, family member or health professional – someone to help keep you on track during the hard days
  • 4. Make a clear plan – taking the requirement of daily decision making out of the picture (the ‘do I or don’t I’) makes going ahead with your plans that much easier
  • 5. Agree to ten minutes as a minimum – on each time you’ve scheduled a workout. Even when you don’t feel like it, if you at least do ten minutes, you’re keeping the habit going. Often getting started is the hardest part anyway!


Check out our Exercise Right article for overcoming the motivational barriers of exercise and mental health. And for more tips on exercising for mental health, check out our How to Train Your Mental Health Monsters campaign.




Louise is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) specialising in mental health.


Callaghan, P., Khalil, E., Morres, I., & Carter, T. (2011). Pragmatic randomised controlled trial of preferred intensity exercise in women living with depression. BMC Public Health, 11, 465. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-11-465

Stanton, R., & Reaburn, P. (2014). Exercise and the treatment of depression: a review of the exercise program variables. J Sci Med Sport, 17(2), 177-182. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2013.03.010