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Move your mood: 5 Tips for exercising with depression

It’s natural and normal to feel depressed at times, especially when life throws you a curve ball. Depression is a mood state, just like happy, excited or sad. Across the spectrum of symptoms, there are distinctly different types of depression. It looks different on everyone. Some might not be able to eat or sleep, others eat too much and are too fatigued to get out of bed.

For those experiencing depressive symptoms, exercise might be the last thing on your mind. But perhaps it shouldn’t be…

Exercise: Nature’s Anti-depressant

A recent meta-analysis found that engaging in physical activity could reduce your chances of developing depression by 17%. We also know that exercise has a significant effect on reducing symptoms of depression, with a well-known study even concluding that exercise was as effective as medication!

But are you sure exercise is going to make me feel better?

Yep – and here’s why…


Exercise releases endorphins (anti-stress hormones), 40 types of them to be exact. One of the effects these have is that they calm the brain and relieve muscle pain during strenuous exercise. Exercise also regulates all of the same neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants.

For starters, it immediately elevates norepinephrine, waking up the brain and getting it going. As well as improving self-esteem, which is one component of depression. Exercise boosts dopamine, which improves mood and feelings of wellness, and jump-starts the attention system. Dopamine is important because it is all about driving motivation and attention. That’s why getting started is the hardest part!

Exercise also increases BDNF which protects neurons against cortisol in areas that control mood, including the hippocampus. It encourages neurons to connect and grow, and is vital for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis (keeping our brain young and adaptable)!

yoga for depression


In addition to feeling good when you exercise, you feel good about yourself, and that has a positive effect that can’t be traced to a particular chemical or area in the brain. What we do know is that norepinephrine and serotonin, which are both boosted with exercise, act on the limbic system (the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the hippocampus). This part of the brain is responsible for things like how we perceive and regulate our emotions. Even small doses of exercises are effective at improving people’s quality of life and psychosocial functioning.

What type of exercise is best?

A recent study suggests that exercising between 3 and 5 times a week for 30-60 minutes is associated with better mental health. Team sports, cycling, aerobic and gym exercise came in at the top for types of exercise associated with better mental health.

Resistance training has also shown to have a large impact on reducing depressive symptoms, particularly when supervised by a health professional and lasting shorter than 45 minutes.

Overall though, the best type of exercise is the one that you’ll actually do (and stick to!). Whether it’s walking to work or going for a run in your lunch break, signing up for a yoga class or going to a boxing session with a mate… You can exercise alone, with a friend, or with a bunch of strangers. You can workout indoors or outdoors. It’s your choice – make it work for you!

The words ‘exercise’ or ‘physical activity’ often bring to mind stereotypical images – like being in a gym or being outside running. And this can put a lot of people off straight away.
A better term to use would be movement. Our bodies are made to move. Our physiology, particularly our neurophysiology (our brain), NEEDS movement to feel good.

Tips for getting started

If you’ve been feeling down, adding exercise into your day is a great place to start. Try it, even if you don’t feel like it! If you do it consistently, you’ll slowly start to feel better. The stability of the routine alone can dramatically improve mood.

Tips from an Exercise Physiologist:
• It’s important to keep expectations reasonable
• Exercise outside, or in an environment that stimulates your senses
• Exercise with somebody
• Something is better than nothing!
• Try to form an exercise routine – this adds to feelings of stability

So next time you feel flat, move your body (even if it’s just out of the house!).

If you need additional help to get you started, try downloading the free Nike Running Club app that can provide you with guided mindfulness runs that help you focus on your breathing and thoughts. Download it here.

And if motivation or accountability is the issue, why not train with an Exercise Physiologist or another qualified health professional?

“Exercise is not an instant cure, but if you move your body your mood basically won’t have a choice!”

Exercise Physiologist - Jacinta Brinsley

Jacinta Brinsley is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at iNform Health and Fitness Solutions, and is currently completing a PHD on Mental Health.