A Two Way Street

Mental Health & Physical Activity

Not to be confused with exercise, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines, “physical activity as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure”. These activities include working, carrying out daily household chores, playing and engaging in recreational pursuits (WHO, 2018).

In 2017-2018, less than 55% of adult Australians met the daily physical activity recommended guidelines, a key risk factor contributing to disease burden in Australia (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2019). By being physically active and limiting an individual’s sedentary behaviour on a daily basis is essential for physical health and improved psychological wellbeing (Department of Health, 2019).

A study in Australia conducted over ten years, concluding in 2011 confirmed the associations between sedentary behaviour, the lack of physical activity and depressive symptoms. Results highlight women who sat for more than 7 hours per day and did no physical activity were more likely to have depressive symptoms than women who sat for less than 4 hours per day and who met physical activity guidelines (Van Uffelen et al., 2013). The relationship between depression and sedentary behaviour can be a two-way street. Depression symptoms sap an individual’s energy and motivation levels to be physically active, and sedentary behaviours may make the depression symptoms worse (Wasmer Andrews, 2014).

Photo by MS Australia on msaustralia.org.au

Participation in regular physical activity or exercise may be as beneficial as medications or psychological therapies for an individual’s clinically diagnosed with mental illness. Guidelines for exercise and those diagnosed with depression include participation between three to four times per week for 30 to 40 minutes over a minimum 9-week duration (Exercise is Medicine Australia, 2014). Three 10-minute walks at low to medium intensity maybe as equally useful as one 30-minute walk (Sharma, Madaan, & Petty, 2006). The outcomes of this exercise program may produce a lower risk of (developing) depression by reducing symptoms of depression for people experiencing other mental disorders.

Furthermore, exercise is an effective strategy to manage the risk factors associated with depression including weight gain, diabetes risk and cardiovascular disease (Exercise is Medicine Australia, 2014; Sharma et al., 2006). Again, highlighting a two way street between chronic diseases and physical activity (Wasmer Andrews, 2014).

Photo by Madison Inouye on Pexels.com

Lifestyle modifications can assume great importance for those individuals with serious mental illness. Leading a sedentary lifestyle has been proven to be a causative factor for people who are experiencing depression and anxiety. Physical activity can be utilised as a preventative and treatment measure for mental health illness. However, the physical activity guidelines are not being achieved by the broader population; it can be associated with the increase of mental health illness in Australia.

The holistic approach of physical, social, emotional and mental health are interconnected and becoming more recognised by healthcare professionals, health researchers, patients and the wider public. This approach highlights that if one area of health is weak, the other areas will be affected. Health professionals and researchers can provide effective, evidence-based physical activity interventions for those individuals suffering from clinically diagnosed mental illness. Highlighting the idea of leading an active lifestyle not only benefits the mind and body but can also improve social health and wellbeing.

By Danielle Borroughs
05 August 2020


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2019). Insufficient Physical Activity. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/risk-factors/insufficient-physical-activity/contents/physical-inactivity

Department of Health. (2019). Nutrition and Physical Activity. Retrieved April 11, 2020, from Australian Government website: https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/Nutrition+and+Physical+Activity-1

Exercise is Medicine Australia. (2014). Depression and Exercise. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from Factsheet website: http://exerciseismedicine.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/2014-Depression-BRIEF.pdf

Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a

Van Uffelen, J. G. Z., Van Gellecum, Y. R., Burton, N. W., Peeters, G., Heesch, K. C., & Brown, W. J. (2013). Sitting-time, physical activity, and depressive symptoms in mid-aged women. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 45(3), 276–281. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2013.04.009

Wasmer Andrews, L. (2014, March 20). What Sitting Does to Your Psyche. Psychology Today Australia. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/minding-the-body/201403/what-sitting-does-your-psyche

World Health Organization. (2018). Physical activity. Retrieved April 11, 2020, from Factsheet website: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity

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