In a world where stress, anxiety, and depression seem to lurk around every corner, finding effective ways to manage our mental health has become paramount. While therapy and medication are indispensable for some, the benefits of exercise, an accessible and frequently overlooked treatment, cannot be understated.

The connection between exercise and mental well-being has been recognized for decades, with physicians, psychologists and researchers praising its efficacy. Today, modern science continues to uncover the profound effects that physical activity can have on our mental health, particularly in combating depression.

Depression is a complex and multifaceted condition, influenced by biological, psychological, and environmental factors and can be categorised as mild, moderate or severe depending on the number and severity of symptoms, as well as the impact on a person’s functioning. Research has shown that it diminishes life satisfaction more than debt, divorce, and diabetes, and it can also aggravate associated conditions like heart disease, anxiety, and cancer. Although psychotherapy and pharmacological treatment are effective in the management of depression, they are often inaccessible to people in lower-income households or can be ineffective for people who are resistant to treatment.

Many studies have concluded that exercise is an effective complementary or alternative treatment to medication and psychotherapy, with its benefits exceeding those on mental health. Various types of exercise are effective and well-tolerated, including walking, jogging, mixed aerobic exercise, strength training, yoga, and tai chi. The effects of exercise have also been found to be greater with higher intensity exercise, as well as with group exercise and interventions with clear prescription.

However, it is essential to respect your personal preferences and limitations from disease or disability.

Whilst acknowledging the proven effects of exercise as a remarkably potent intervention, it is essential to understand how it achieves its reputation.

1. Neurochemical Balance

When we exercise, our bodies release a flood of chemicals known as neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These neurotransmitters are crucial in regulating mood, pleasure, and pain perception. Serotonin, in particular, commonly referred to as the “feel good” or “happy” neurotransmitter, tends to have lower levels in individuals with depression.

Exercise increases serotonin production, helping to alleviate symptoms of depression and improve overall mood.

2. Stress Reduction

Regular physical activity is a natural stress reliever, dampening the body’s stress response and promoting relaxation. Stress is closely linked to depression, with chronic stress contributing to the development and exacerbation of depressive symptoms. Exercise provides a healthy outlet for pent-up tension, helping to reduce cortisol levels and promote a sense of calm and relaxation.

3. Cognitive Benefits

Exercise does not just benefit the body; it is also incredibly beneficial for the mind. Studies have shown that regular exercise can improve cognitive function, enhance memory, and sharpen focus.

These cognitive benefits can be particularly valuable for individuals struggling with depression, as they may experience cognitive impairments, such as difficulties with concentration and decision. By improving brain function, exercise can help individuals feel more mentally agile and better equipped to cope with the challenges of daily life.

4. Social Connection

Physical activity often involves social interaction, whether joining a sports team, attending a group fitness class, or simply walking with a friend. Social connection is a powerful aid to depression, offering support, companionship, and a sense of belonging. By participating in exercise-related activities, individuals can form meaningful relationships and build a supportive network, reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness.

5. Empowerment and Mastery

Depression can leave individuals feeling powerless and hopeless, trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts and emotions. Exercise provides an opportunity to reclaim a sense of control. Setting and achieving fitness goals, whether running a certain distance, lifting a certain weight, or mastering a new yoga pose, can create a sense of accomplishment. These feelings of empowerment can counteract the feelings of helplessness that often accompany depression, assisting individuals in taking charge of their mental and physical health.

Incorporating Exercise into Your Routine

The beauty of exercise as a treatment for depression lies in its accessibility and versatility. One does not need expensive equipment or a gym membership to reap the benefits. All you need is a pair of takkies and a willingness to move your body. Whether going for a jog in the park, practising yoga in your living room, or dancing to your favourite music, there are countless ways to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine.

Start small and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts as your fitness level improves. Remember that consistency is key, and making exercise a regular part of your routine is essential as it often takes time to see or feel its effects. As the time you set aside to exercise is devoted to improving and making you feel good, you should not be afraid to mix it up and try new activities until you find what works best for you.

While exercise alone may not be a cure for depression, it can be a powerful complement to other forms of treatment. By harnessing the transformative power of physical activity, individuals can take proactive steps towards improving their mental health and reclaiming their lives from the grip of depression. So, lace up your shoes, step outside, and take the first step toward a happier, healthier you. Your mind and body will thank you for it.


Knapen, J. & Vancampfort, D., 2013. Evidence for exercise therapy in the treatment of depression and anxiety. International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation, 17(2), pp. 75-87.

Noetel, M. et al., 2024. Effect of exercise for depression: systematic review and network meta[1]analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ, Volume 384.

World Health Organisation, 2023. Depressive disorder (depression). [Online]

Available at:[1]sheets/detail/depression/?gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQjwhtWvBhD9ARIsAOP0Goj4tTI4iTs2xp2ychLdl-yhsO-Hqr_0VqijMmWchVa3bTukXFvq0c4aAhI2EALw_wcB

[Accessed 14 March 2024].