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Exercise and Improving Your Mental Wellbeing


Published: 14 June 2018

Cover image for article: Exercise and Improving Your Mental Wellbeing

It is a widely held view that exercise can improve mood and overall wellbeing, but what does the literature say?

Physical Exercise to Improve Your Mental Wellbeing

Cooney et al. (2013) completed a systematic review which concluded that exercise was more effective in comparison to no treatment, or a comparator controlled intervention.

Yet, this systematic review (Cooney et al, 2013) also found that exercise was not more effective than psychological or pharmacological therapies at reducing symptoms of depression.

This review highlights the argument that it would be worthwhile for more researchers to look into which specific forms of exercise are most effective at limiting symptoms of depression (Cooney et al, 2013).

It would also be beneficial to understand exactly how many sessions of particular types of exercise are needed to prevent depression, and how long each of these sessions should take or continue for (Cooney et al, 2013).

Types of Exercise

A systematic review examining interventions to reduce sick-days in workplaces by Neiuwenhuijsen et al (2014) also explored the mental health benefits of physical activity.

The review found in one particular study that the number of participants taking sick-leave days from work reduced when participants performed strength exercises.

A further two more studies indicated that more aerobic exercises on the other hand, such as running, were no more effective than regular relaxation and stretching (Neiuwenhuijsen et al, 2014).

Meekums, Karkou and Nelson (2015) conducted a review into the use of exercise in the form of dance movement therapy to treat depression, however they concluded that its effectiveness could not definitively be measured yet as studies were only conducted with quite small numbers.

Cramer et al (2017) interestingly could conclude that yoga was an effective form of exercise for reducing depression. This specific finding was in comparison to psychosocial or educational interventions.

Additionally, yoga (as per evidence of moderate quality), was shown to have the benefits of (Cramer et al, 2017):

  • Improved health-related quality of life
  • Decreased fatigue
  • Less sleep disturbance
  • Less anxiety

Further Benefits

Another systematic review outlined the need for increased research, particularly to focus on implementing non-pharmacological interventions for people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) who also have clinical depression (Gertler, Tate & Cameron, 2015).

Higher quality evidence is necessary in order to understand whether exercise and other non-pharmacological interventions are effective at preventing depression for people with TBI and clinical depression (Gertler et al, 2015).

Another study looking at the relationship between mental wellbeing and exercise, was that of Kendrick et al (2014).

Their systematic review concluded that whilst exercise interventions may help to lessen the fear of falls for older community-dwelling participants, immediately post-intervention, there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that this fear is reduced long term.

Evidently, this study was not specifically focused on depression and a conclusion cannot be made regarding whether exercise interventions’ immediate falls-related-fear-reduction is subsequently able to prevent dementia.

Similarly, another study touched on exercise and depression but it was focused on chronic fatigue syndrome (Larun et al, 2017). Larun et al (2017) found that exercise could lessen fatigue. Yet, the study did not conclude whether it could prevent depression (Larun et al, 2017).


From this overview of studies, it is apparent that exercise may show some promise in reducing depressive symptoms.

Conversely, further research is necessary to establish best-practice guidelines for which specific types of exercise are most effective in treating depression or specific depressive symptoms.

It is also clear that additional research is needed to generate best-practice guidelines for preventing depression via the development of exercise plans that outline the amount of exercise needed, and the timeframe or exercise duration.

Of course, it is also apparent from this literature overview that there is a need for more high-quality evidence. This may require careful consideration of adequate sample sizes, how to reduce bias, and how to provide thorough details of the exercises utilised.

  • Cooney, GM, Dwan, K, Greig, CA, Lawlor, DA, Rimer, J, Waugh, FR, McMurdo, M & Mead, GE 2013, ‘Exercise for depression’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 9, viewed 15 June 2018,
  • Cramer, H, Lauche, R, Klose, P, Lange, S, Langhorst J, Dobos, GJ 2017, ‘Yoga for improving health-related quality of life, mental health and cancer-related symptoms in women diagnosed with breast cancer’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, vol. 1, viewed 15 June 2018,
  • Gertler, P, Tate, RL & Cameron, ID 2015, ‘Non-pharmacological interventions for depression in adults and children with traumatic brain injury’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews,  no. 12, viewed 15 June 2018, http://cochranelibrary-w…6068d93b68
  • Kendrick, D, Kumar, A, Carpenter, H, Zijlstra, GAR, Skelton, DA, Cook, JR, Stevens, Z, Belcher, CM, Haworth, D, Gawler, SJ, Gage, H, Masud, T, Bowling, A, Pearl, M, Morris, RW, Iliffe, S & Delbaere, K 2014, ‘Exercise for reducing fear of falling in older people living in the community’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 11 viewed 15 June 2018,
  • Larun, L, Brurberg, KG, Odgaard-Jensen, J & Price, JR 2017, ‘Exercise therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 4, viewed 15 June 2018,
  • Meekums, B, Karkou, V & Nelson, EA 2015, ‘Dance movement therapy for depression’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 2, viewed 15 June 2018,
  • Nieuwenhuijsen, K, Faber, B, Verbeek, JH, Neumeyer-Gromen, A, Hees, HL, Verhoeven, AC, van der Feltz-Cornelis, CM & Bültmann U 2014, ‘Interventions to improve return to work in depressed people’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 12, viewed 15 June 2018,


Portrait of Madeline Gilkes
Madeline Gilkes

Madeline Gilkes focused the research project for her master's of healthcare leadership on health coaching for long-term weight loss in obese adults. Madeline is also a qualified weight management practitioner and Registered Nurse. Her vision is to prevent lifestyle diseases, obesogenic environments, dementia, and metabolic syndrome. She has a master of healthcare leadership, a graduate certificate in aged care, and a bachelor of nursing. Madeline works as an academic and has spent the past years in the role of clinical facilitator and clinical nurse specialist (gerontology & education). She is due to complete her Graduate Certificate in Adult and Vocational Education at CSU before November 2018. See Educator Profile

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