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Can exercise help prevent depression?

New research suggests just one hour of exercise a week can help protect your mental health.

Getting active does more than keep your body strong and healthy. Exercise can also be a great way to boost your mood, reduce stress and rev up your energy. One in 20 Australians experiences depression every year, and psychologists have long recommended regular exercise to help manage symptoms.

But exercise can also play a role in preventing depression, as well as treating it. A new study lead by the Black Dog Institute has found that just one hour of exercise a week can have this positive effect on your mental health.

Published in October in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the study was largest and most extensive of its kind. It involved almost 34,000 Norwegian adults, whose exercise levels and symptoms of depression were monitored over 11 years.

Based on these results, the international research team suggested that 12% of episodes of depression could be prevented with just one hour of exercise each week, regardless of age, gender, or even the intensity of exercise.

Small steps is all it takes

So what does this mean? The results are encouraging, because it shows there is something really simple we can all do to help prevent depression, says Associate Professor Josephine Anderson, psychiatrist and Clinical Director of the Black Dog Institute.

“We’ve known for quite some time that exercise can help people recover from depression. Studies have shown that in some cases – generally of more reactive or mild depression – exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medication,” she says.

“But what we haven’t known clearly until this study was whether exercise could actually prevent depression – and if it could, how much exercise you would need to do in order to have a positive effect.”

It’s not clear yet exactly why exercise has this impact, and further research will need to be done to explore this, Associate Professor Anderson says.

“It may be a combination of the physical effects of exercise – because we know that does have an effect on mood – as well as the other things that can often happen with exercise, like socialising, or being aware of the flowers and trees as you’re walking, things like that.”

The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to start an intense training program to experience an improvement in your mental health. Regular walking, a few laps of the pool, or a social game of tennis can be a great place to start.

“It does look like an hour a week is enough to get this mental health benefit. And an hour a week is manageable for almost everybody,” Associate Professor Anderson says.

“It doesn’t have to be all at once – you could do two half hours a week, or three 20-minute walks.”

Schedule it in

If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression or feel you might be at risk, scheduling in activities can be an important part of your self-care.

“When you become depressed it can be hard to experience enjoyment, so we often withdraw and stop doing the things that would normally bring us pleasure.

“But it’s important to try to engage in those things, and find ways to begin to exercise regularly again, even when you really don’t feel like it,” Associate Professor Anderson says.

“Schedule these activities in, and try to keep deliberately engaging with the world. Along with exercise and enjoyable activities, getting good, restful sleep, a healthy diet and avoiding things like alcohol are all really important.”

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