Exercise for Mental Health


What is Mental Health?


According to the World Health Organization (2022), mental health is considered to be “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community”(1). Good mental health was previously recognised as the absence of mental disorders. It is now commonly recognised that mental health and mental illness exist on separate continuums. This means that while someone may have a diagnosed chronic mental illness, they may be in a state of good mental health at any given time. 

How common are mental health disorders in Australia?


The Bureau of statistics released the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing in October 2023(2). In summary, the following statistics indicate the prevalence of people living with mental illness between 2020 and 2022 in Australia: 


  • 42.9% of people aged 16–85 years had experienced a mental disorder at some time in their life 
  • 21.5% of people had a 12-month mental disorder, with Anxiety being the most common group (17.2% of people aged 16–85 years)
  • 38.8% of people aged 16–24 years had a 12-month mental disorder

What are the main diagnosis?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is clinically used for the diagnosis of mental disorders(3). Some of the most prevalent are listed below, with the ones we most commonly see in our clinic in bold:


Anxiety Disorders 

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder [GAD]
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder [OCD]
  • Phobias
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]

Eating Disorders

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa

Mood Disorders

  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Major Depressive Disorder

Psychotic Disorders

  • Schizoaffective Disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Personality Disorders

  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder


Current Interventions


Currently, the first line of management for mental health is the General Practitioner (GP), who are often involved in management through pharmacological interventions such as the prescription of medications under the antidepressant and antipsychotic umbrella. 


Psychologists play an important role in diagnosing, and treating the psychological problems and the behavioral dysfunctions through evidence based cognitive and behavioral based therapy. 


A Psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specialises in mental disorders, and is qualified to prescribe medication.  


Exercise Physiology falls into the “other category” on the below graph. With only 12% of people with mental health disorders accessing other/allied health in any given year, the potential impact of exercise therapy is significantly reduced. 

Why is exercise important?


Once viewed as ‘just’ a distraction from negative thoughts, exercise is now recognised as an  evidence-based, fundamental component of treatment for a range of mental illnesses(4). The current perception of exercise is as an adjunct therapy, however research shows in some cases exercise to be as beneficial as pharmacological treatment alone. The best effects are likely to be achieved when a combination of all current evidence based treatment modalities are used simultaneously. 


Mental disorders do not often occur in isolation. People with mental disorders are significantly more likely to also have other chronic health conditions such as COPD (35%), back pain (30%), Asthma (29%), 2-3x more likely to have diabetes, and 4x more likely to have cardiovascular disease.


It is not a matter of trying to determine if the chicken came before the egg in this case, but can be beneficial to address both conditions through one intervention – EXERCISE!


What are some of the benefits of exercise? 

  • Decrease symptoms of mental health conditions
  • Increase the quality of your sleep
  • Improve self esteem and reduce social withdrawal
  • Help control weight gain induced by some antidepressant medications
  • Improve chronic disease outcomes


How much exercise should I do? What type of exercise should I do?


Any exercise is better than none, and more exercise is better than some. There are recommendations around exercise type and volume for the general population, and for the management of mental disorders. However, the best exercise is the one that you are going to enjoy most as this will lead to the most significant long term changes. 


In general, the exercise recommendations for management of mental health are as follows: 

Exercise as preventative medicine


Why wait? 


The benefits of exercise on mental wellbeing are the same for people with or without the diagnosis of mental disorders. Integrating exercise into your life provides a protective factor for both physical and mental health conditions. 

Exercise & Mental Health, ESSA eBook, Page 9


How can an Exercise Physiologist help?


With all this information it should be easy to just go out and get started, right? Not necessarily. 


It can still be overwhelming to start a new exercise program, even if you have been physically active in the past. An Exercise Physiologist is able to tailor an exercise program to you, that suits your needs, goals and motivation levels, as well as considering any psychosocial barriers that may exist. They will also ensure that progression is safe and provide accountability moving forward to ensure that you are more easily able to adhere to your exercise plan. 


Acute mental crisis support services. Available 24 hours, 7 days per week


  • Lifeline: 13 11 14 
  • Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
  • MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800
  • 13YARN: 13 92 76




  1. World Health Organization Mental Health Factsheet
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics: National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing
  3. Australian Parliament: Definitions of mental health and mental illness
  4. Exercise and Sport Science Australia: Mental Health eBook



This blog was written by Daniel. To find out more about Daniel click the image or check out our Team Page

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