Exercise can play a key role in reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression and can also help with improving sleep quality. And whilst engaging in regular physical activity in leisure time not only helps to reduce symptoms of depression in adults, it may even play a role in preventing depression from developing.

The Australian Government recommends that the average adult should aim for 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity each week or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous intensity physical activity, or a combination of both intensity levels that meets somewhere in the middle. Moderate intensity activities are things like brisk walking, swimming or even mowing the lawn. Vigorous activity also varies from independent activities to organised team sports, and this might look like jogging, cycling or playing a more fast-paced sport.

When it comes to exercising for mental health, the research currently varies. It has been suggested to engage supervised moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (or a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise) for 45-50 minutes, twice or three times a week for several weeks, to effectively target depression. Whilst this seems highly prescriptive, other research shows that there might be a bit more flexibility when it comes to choosing activities that are both effective in supporting mental health and suited to one’s culture, ability and preferences.

A recent review of existing studies found evidence of benefits across a variety of physical activities, including cardio, strength, yoga and mixed-mode exercise, when it comes to anxiety and depression. More specifically, resistance exercise (e.g., using weights) proved to have the largest effects on depressive symptoms, while mind-body and yoga-based exercise better targeted anxiety. What this analysis tells us is that different types of exercise may play a role in managing different symptoms. The review also found that greater effects were associated with higher intensity physical activity and shorter durations of exercise in the intervention, when compared with a longer time spent exercising.

How does this play into our wellbeing and activity at work? There is a known risk to mental health with inactivity, specifically prolonged periods of sitting and therefore it is important to consider ways that we can create opportunities for movement in our workday to support our health. This could be anything from planned exercise (e.g., cycling the commute or organising a walking meeting), to simply moving through the office more (e.g., standing to answer the phone or opting for the stairs over the lift).