Beat Depression and Stress with Exercise

John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia, would have arguably one of the most stressful and demanding jobs in the country. Yet he still finds time for his daily fitness walk. He regards exercise and fitness as an important part of his daily timetable and sticks to this morning schedule no matter where he is. This message from the top highlights the critical importance of exercise in combating stress, anxiety and depression.

We all know how important exercise is for weight loss, cardiovascular health, combating diabetes and maintaining a high level of fitness. Our bodies are designed to be active and any program that enhances this is beneficial to our health. Activities that boost our fitness can range from gardening and walking to sports including tennis and swimming up to the extreme sports, including high altitude mountain climbing.

According to exercise physiologist Chris Tzar, exercise is now considered a primary treatment for mild and moderate depression. Jeff Kennett, a former Premier of Victoria, is now chairman of Beyond Blue, an Australian depression initiative. He also stresses the importance of exercise and fitness in beating depression. “Whether you walk, swim, play golf or go hang gliding, I don’t care, but physical fitness is terribly important to our wellbeing,” he says.


There are a number of theories about the mechanisms behind exercise therapy to treat depression. Some suggest exercise increases the release of endorphins and other “feel good” hormones that have a similar uplifting effect to prescription antidepressants. Others believe that exercise develops greater self confidence and enables people to develop new relationships.

Exercise can also create a diversion, taking the individual’s mind off his/her problem. Some years ago, I suffered from work related stress and depression.

Fortunately I was [and still am] a keen tennis player. The simple action of stepping onto the court, the hard, competitive physical activity and the camaraderie of other players, did wonders for my sense of wellbeing.


Several types of aerobic exercise have been found to reduce the symptoms of depression including running, cycling, jogging, swimming or going for a 20 minute walk. These types of activities may not be appropriate for some older adults. Gardening or a short walk around the block may be more suitable for those in this age group. In older people, exercise has been found to be just as beneficial as antidepressant medication or social contact according to Beyond Blue.


Strength training and weights can also reduce some symptoms of depression.

According to Edith Cowan University exercise science professor Robert Newton, the most convincing research to date showed high intensity weight lifting resistance training was far superior in curbing anxiety and depression than either low intensity training or just remaining on the couch.

In an Australian study published in the Journal of Gerontology in 2005, high intensity strength training was shown to reduce depression as effectively as drug therapy. There is growing evidence that strength training should be offered as a primary treatment for depression in older adults. It provides additional benefits including strengthening bones [better osteoporosis management], preventing falls and managing arthritis.

Finally, before commencing any exercise program, it is important that you discuss your plans with your doctor. You may like to consider a tailored exercise program with an exercise physiologist.

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