Walking, running or hiit - which exercise should you do to help depression and anxiety?

Health Agenda
Mental Health


Published July 2022 | 6 min read
Expert contributors Dr Grant Blashki, Beyond Blue lead clinical adviser; Dr Grace McKeon, postdoctoral research fellow
Words by Stephanie Osfield

We know exercise has benefits for mental health, but how long and how often should you work out to help depression and anxiety, and which intensity works best?

When Danielle Taylor developed depression during treatment for breast cancer she felt she needed something in addition to counselling to help reduce her teariness and worry. So, she decided to give dragon boating a go.

“Though the exercise was intense, I pushed through my fatigue and each week, I not only felt my muscles getting stronger, I felt I was getting stronger emotionally too,” 57-year-old Danielle recalls.

“Focusing on my breath and the rhythm of the rowing, chatting with a bunch of great women, and seeing the sun on the water and pelicans pass by really lifted my spirits and I always walked home on an emotional high. It spurred me on to start doing strength and stretch training and regular walks, which all improved my mood.”

As Danielle quickly discovered, exercise isn't just a healthful way to prevent disease and maintain a healthy weight. “Some studies show exercise is comparable with psychological treatments and medications, for helping treat mental health issues, especially for more mild cases of depression,” says Dr Grant Blashki, Beyond Blue lead clinical adviser.  

How exercise benefits depression and anxiety

“Exercise helps interrupt negative thought patterns and increases your sense that you can cope with life’s stresses,” Dr Blashki explains. It can also lower stress hormones and increase mood-boosting brain chemicals, such as serotonin and endorphins, according to Dr Blashki.

Exercise can also help your brain make new cells. “Neuroscientists have found that exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus – the brain region which helps regulate mood and emotions and consolidates memories,” says Dr Grace McKeon, a postdoctoral research fellow who studies exercise and mental health at the University of NSW department of Medicine & Health.

“In people with depression, the hippocampus is often smaller. Exercise helps improve nerve cell connections and increases the size of the hippocampus, which helps relieve depression.”

Working out also increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a chemical that’s often lower in people with depression, says Dr McKeon. “Often called ‘brain fertiliser’, exercise can increase BDNF levels while also lowering inflammatory chemicals, which have been linked to depression,” Dr McKeon adds.

What is the best exercise for depression?

“Research suggests that aerobic exercise (such as walking, cycling and jogging) and resistance training (strength training or weights) can both help reduce depression,” Dr Blashki explains. “Incidental activity is also important.” That’s good reason to look for opportunities to move more, like cycling to the train station or scheduling a walking meeting at work.

The most beneficial exercise intensity depends on your physical and mental health, lifestyle and preferences. “Low, moderate and high intensity exercise are all helpful for treating anxiety and depression,” says Dr McKeon. “But the best exercise for mental and physical health is the one you enjoy, because then you want to keep moving.”

How to motivate yourself to exercise when you have anxiety or depression

Hitting the pool, pavement or Pilates class may feel like a challenge if you experience anxiety or depression. So Dr Blashki suggests you grab your diary and schedule exercise like you would slot in a meeting or coffee catch-up.

Exercising with a friend can also have the added benefit of creating laughter, chitchat and socialisation. “The social connection from joining a team sport or workout group, or from meeting a friend to walk with, can substantially boost enjoyment and exercise motivation,” Dr Blashki points out.

Whether you exercise in the morning or afternoon, your mental health will benefit. Studies even show that evening exercise, once thought to interfere with sleep, does not appear to impact our zzzzs.

“Timing matters if you’re going to stick to your routine though,” says Caroline Fitzgerald, an exercise physiologist, who conducts face-to-face and telehealth workout sessions with people who’ve been referred by GPs and psychologists to the Black Dog Institute Exercise Physiology Clinic.

“If a person isn’t sleeping well or finds it hard to get out of bed due to depression, I schedule their workout later in the day,” Caroline explains. “We might start or finish the session with 15 minutes of slow stretches then do a low intensity workout or slowly build to a more moderate intensity workout with activities like some squats and lunges.”

Which exercise helps anxiety?

Research shows that high intensity interval training (HIIT) can reduce anxiety. This involves short bursts of exercise such as star jumps, followed by short periods of rest or low intensity movement. The calming impact of HIIT is roughly twice as high as the anxiety benefits of low impact exercise. Resistance training twice a week is also effective for reducing anxiety and worry, with immediate reductions after only one week. These anti-anxiety impacts continue if you keep up the regular training of around eight resistance exercises per session, with eight to 12 reps for each one.

For a change of pace, try slow-moving workouts, such as yoga and tai chi which also provide anxiety relief. In one study, people doing daily yoga sessions noticed a substantial drop in their anxiety levels from day 10 onwards (and by day 30 their symptoms of depression were substantially less). In people doing regular tai chi practice, MRI scans have shown changes to the part of the brain that helps regulate negative or stressed emotions, which may explain why morning tai chi classes have become so popular.

Nature-based activities, such as walking in the park or near the ocean, or even gardening, can also have powerful calming domino effects. Wellbeing goes up when people accumulate 120 minutes in nature over a week. Forest bathing – walking in a forest for several hours – has also been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol and reduce heart rate, pulse and blood pressure, because the body and mind become more relaxed. While you’re enjoying the skyscapes or wind in the trees, take time to do some deep slow breathing exercises or meditation, which are both simple anxiety-reducing techniques. By breathing slowly from the diaphragm you can lower stress levels and turn the dial down on your anxiety every day.

How much exercise do you need to benefit mental health?

Research shows improvement in people with depression when they exercise three to five times a week for four to 16 weeks. Dr Blashki has found his patients enjoy optimal benefits when they stick to their routine for three months, three times a week. Even just doing one 30-minute workout can reduce symptoms of depression for 75 minutes or more. “Some people find their mood lifts after weeks of exercise, while others notice mental health benefits after the first session and into the next day,” says Caroline.

“Once they work out regularly, most people happily tell me how much exercise has improved their energy and sleep and gives them a strong sense of satisfaction too.”

HCF mental health support

If you need mental health support, HCF members can access video consultations with a psychologist by calling our partner PSYCH2U, which was established in 2011.

“It’s now one of the largest Australian providers of telehealth appointments for psychiatrists and psychologists in Australia,” says Sarah Richardson, PSYCH2U general manager. “All you need is a referral or mental healthcare plan sent from your GP to PSYCH2U and we will contact you to make an appointment. Using our special telehealth system, the consultation can take place on your phone, tablet or laptop/desktop computer. This fast, easy access to mental telehealth support ensures HCF members catch issues early, ensuring earlier treatment and intervention.”

Eligible HCF members can also get a free HealthyMinds check-in*. If you need support for yourself or a loved one, please visit PSYCH2U to book online  or call 1300 472 866 (Mon to Fri 8.30am to 4.30pm AEST/AEDT) for more information.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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* 1 HealthyMinds Check-in available per member per calendar year. Service is available free to all members with hospital cover. Excludes extras only cover, Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.

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