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Undertaking as little as one hour of exercise per week can help prevent the onset of depression, an international research team led by the Black Dog Institute has shown.

The landmark study found regular exercise of any intensity can protect against depression, even just one hour making a difference to mental health regardless of age or gender.

The most extensive study of its kind, the analysis involved 33,908 Norwegian adults who had their levels of exercise and symptoms of depression and anxiety monitored over 11 years.

Results showed 12% of cases of depression could have been prevented if participants had undertaken just one hour of physical activity each week.

“We’ve known for some time that exercise has a role to play in treating symptoms of depression but this is the first time we have been able to quantify the preventative potential of physical activity in terms of reducing future levels of depression,” said lead author Associate Professor Samuel Harvey, from the Black Dog Institute and the University of New South Wales.

Professor Harvey said the research team was still trying to pinpoint why exercise could stop depression.

“We are still trying to determine exactly why exercise can have this protective effect, but we believe it is from the combined impact of the various physical and social benefits of physical activity.

“These results highlight the great potential to integrate exercise into individual mental health plans and broader public health campaigns. If we can find ways to increase the population’s level of physical activity, even by a small amount, then this is likely to bring substantial physical and mental health benefits.”

Researchers used data from one of Norway’s most comprehensive population based health surveys ever undertaken, which was conducted from 1984 to 1997.

Results showed people who reported doing no exercise were 44% more likely to develop depression compared to those who exercised one or two hours a week.

However, the benefits did not extend to protecting against anxiety.

According to the Australian Health Survey, 20% of Australian adults don’t exercise regularly, while more than a third spend less than 1.5 hours per week being physically active.