Prescribing exercise for mental health

by | Mental Health

It’s estimated that around 45% of Australians will experience a mental health issue like depression, anxiety or substance use disorder at some point during their lifetime. The GP is the first stop for many people with mental health problems, comprising more than 12% of GP encounters in Australia. First line treatment often involves prescription of antidepressant, antipsychotic, and/or mood-stabilising medications and while there is no doubt that medication is necessary and beneficial for some people, there is growing evidence that lifestyle behaviours can play an important role, especially exercise.

People with mental health issues are more likely to be overweight and at higher risk of cardiometabolic (e.g. heart and diabetes) diseases. Research suggests that exercise can reduce cardiometabolic risk in people with mental health problems and may also be effective in reducing symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. Other proposed benefits of exercise for such people include reduced stress, improved body image, social inclusion, increased control, and improved coping strategies.

While physical activity is recommended in guidelines for the treatment of depression and anxiety, detail on the best types, and optimal frequency and duration, are often not included. Evidence suggests that exercise is also often not prescribed by GPs alongside medication or psychotherapy.


Exercise can substantially improve both physical and mental health.  For people with depression in particular, exercise can assist with symptom control and potentially reduce the risk of recurrence. Physical activity prescriptions should be considered in first line management strategies for people with mental illness alongside other treatments where appropriate.

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