Exercise and Improving Your Mental Wellbeing


Published: 13 June 2018

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

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 (Cooney et al. 2013).

Types of Exercise

Man looking down with arms resting on a barbell whilst resting

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 that in one particular study, 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 such as running, on the other hand, 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 a small sample number.

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 other benefits, including:

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

(Cramer et al. 2017)

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 et al. 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 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 (Kendrick et al. 2014).

Evidently, this study was not specifically focused on depression and a conclusion cannot be made regarding whether the immediate falls-related-fear-reduction associated with exercise interventions 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). The study found that exercise could lessen fatigue. Yet, it 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, G M, Dwan, K, Greig, C A, Lawlor, D A, Rimer, J, Waugh, F R, McMurdo, M & Mead, G E 2013, 'Exercise for Depression', Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 9, viewed 15 June 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24026850.
  • Cramer, H, Lauche, R, Klose, P, Lange, S, Langhorst J, Dobos, G J 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, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28045199
  • Gertler, P, Tate, R L & Cameron, I D 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, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26663136/
  • Kendrick, D, Kumar, A, Carpenter, H, Zijlstra, G A R, Skelton, D A, Cook, J R, Stevens, Z, Belcher, C M, Haworth, D, Gawler, S J, Gage, H, Masud, T, Bowling, A, Pearl, M, Morris, R W, 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, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25432016
  • Larun, L, Brurberg, K G, Odgaard-Jensen, J & Price, J R 2017, 'Exercise Therapy for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome', Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 4, viewed 15 June 2018, http://cochranelibrary-wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003200.pub7/abstract
  • Meekums, B, Karkou, V & Nelson, E A 2015, 'Dance Movement Therapy for Depression', Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 2, viewed 15 June 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25695871
  • Nieuwenhuijsen, K, Faber, B, Verbeek, J H, Neumeyer-Gromen, A, Hees, H L, Verhoeven, A C, van der Feltz-Cornelis, C M & Bültmann U 2014, 'Interventions to Improve Return to Work in Depressed People', Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 12, viewed 15 June 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25470301


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Madeline Gilkes View profile
Madeline Gilkes, CDE, RN, is a Fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine. She focused her Master of Healthcare Leadership research project on health coaching for long-term weight loss in obese adults. Madeline has found a passion for preventative nursing. She has transitioned from leadership roles (CNS Gerontology & Education, Clinical Facilitator) in the acute/hospital setting to education management and primary healthcare. Madeline’s vision is to implement lifestyle medicine to prevent and treat chronic conditions. Her research proposal for her PhD involves Lifestyle Medicine for Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Madeline is a Credentialled Diabetes Educator (CDE) and primarily works in the academic role of Head of Nursing. Madeline’s philosophy focuses on using humanistic management, adult learning theories/evidence and self-efficacy theories and interventions to promote positive learning environments. In addition to her Master of Healthcare Leadership, Madeline has a Graduate Certificate in Diabetes Education & Management, Graduate Certificate in Adult & Vocational Education, Graduate Certificate of Aged Care Nursing, and a Bachelor of Nursing. She is working towards her PhD.