It has long been known that regular exercise is good for our physical health. It can reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and strokes.
In recent years, studies have shown that regular physical activity also has benefits for mental health. Exercise can help people recover from depression and prevent them from becoming depressed in the first place.
Dr Alan Cohen, a GP with a special interest in mental health, says that when people get depressed or anxious, they often feel they're not in control of their lives.
“Exercise gives them back control of their bodies and this is often the first step to feeling in control of other events,” he says.
Who can benefit and what type of exercise is best?
Anyone with depression can benefit from doing regular exercise, but it's especially useful for people with mild depression.
“Any type of exercise is useful as long as it suits you and you do enough of it,” says Dr Cohen. “Exercise should be something you enjoy. Otherwise it will be hard to find the motivation to do it regularly.”
To stay healthy, adults should do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week. Find out more about:
If you haven’t exercised for a while, gradually introduce physical activity into your daily routine.
Even a 15-minute walk can help you clear your mind and relax. Any exercise is better than none.
How to get started
Take part in a team sport, attend classes at a sports centre or just be more active in your daily routine by walking or cycling instead of travelling by car.
Find an activity you can do regularly. For more ideas on different types of exercise and the benefits of being more active, see our fitness section.
To find exercise classes and sports clubs in your area, search the sport and fitness services directory.
If conservation work appeals to you, look at the Green Gym website. Green Gym projects, run in association with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV), provide exercise for people who don’t like the idea of a sports or leisure centre. A typical project involves working in local woodlands or creating community gardens. Sessions are free and led by a BTCV member of staff.
Exercise on prescription
If you haven’t exercised for a long time or are concerned about the effects of exercise on your health, ask your GP about the exercise on prescription programme. Many GP surgeries across the country prescribe exercise as a treatment for a range of conditions, including depression.
Your GP will refer you to a local active health team for a fixed number of sessions under the supervision of a qualified trainer.
You decide with your GP and the active health team what type of activity will suit you. Depending on your circumstances and what’s available locally, the exercise programme may be offered free or at a reduced cost.
Further help and information
Many treatments are available for depression, including talking therapies, antidepressant medication and self-help of various kinds. Find out more about treatment for depression.
If you’ve been feeling down for more than two weeks, see your GP to discuss your symptoms. They can tell you about the choice of treatment available for depression and help you decide what’s best for you.