Moderate Exercise Decreases Depression, Anxiety, and Stress

Summary by Joy Onozuka

Exercise triggers a biological cascade of events that improve physical and mental health, which can be helpful for those with mild to moderate depression who prefer not to take medication. Moderate exercise, in particular, is effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, which is why the World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

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But how much, what context, what intensity, and what types of exercise are really necessary to reap mental health benefits? A group of researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA) and MSH Medical School Hamburg in Germany sought to answer that question because research in this area is limited.¹

The researchers recruited 682 recreational athletes who completed a questionnaire on the characteristics of their recreational exercise, the Centre of Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD-7).

Key findings included:

  1. Lowest depression and lowest anxiety scores were found for indoor team athletes, followed by outdoor individual athletes.
  2. Those who did not meet the minimum 150-minute recommendation of weekly exercise reported higher depression scores, whether they exercised indoors or outdoors, and whether they participated in individual or group exercise.
  3. Higher depression scores were found among those individuals engaged in vigorous-intensity exercise compared to those engaged in moderate-intensity exercise indoors on a team and meeting the 150-minute per week guideline.

The findings reaffirm the WHO exercise guidelines and indicate that meeting the guideline recommendations has a positive effect on reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

While noting that further research is needed, the researchers concluded that individuals should set modest, achievable exercise goals based on what they enjoy doing to reap the rewards of improved mood and outlook. If you can’t manage 30 minutes of exercise five times a week, then start with five minutes of daily exercise and gradually increase the duration as your body adjusts. It should be noted that exercise only is not effective for helping people with disorders such as bipolar, schizophrenia, or severe depression, which require treatment and supervision by trained mental health professionals.

1. Siefken, K., Junge, A., & Laemmle, L. (2019). How does sport affect mental health? An investigation into the relationship of leisure-time physical activity with depression and anxiety. Human Movement, 20(1), 62–74. doi:10.5114/hm.2019.78539