How Group Exercise Can Help With Moderate Depression

Towards the end of last year, England National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) came up with new guidelines for treating less severe depression, and one of the proposed treatment options to try was group exercise.

Of course, group exercise is not a magic pill (although the positive effect running can have on mental health surprised us). So we turned to Niamh Maguire, Director of Therapies at Priory Group, to find out how group exercise can help, what its limitations are, and how to access it as a treatment.

Priory Group experts helped create the My Possible Self mental health app (available on the App store and google play), which uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to help people manage common mental health issues like depression, and includes advice on exercise.

How can group exercise help treat moderate depression?

We know that with exercise there is research on how it can help reduce some of the symptoms of depression, like low mood, low motivation, low energy.

Where the group exercise becomes particularly interesting is around this involvement with other people. Depression is an isolating disorder, and the group helps a person become more engaged and social with others.

So, in addition to the benefit of exercising, bringing in those endorphins, and targeting symptoms of low mood and low energy, the group aspect will help with that feeling of loneliness.

Another benefit of attending group exercise classes is that individuals can observe each other’s progress. Depression is partly linked to low motivation, and being around other people and seeing their progress can really motivate people and help them deal with their own depression. Of course, it can also be difficult to see others progress, but in general we know that being around others and seeing their progress can be a big motivator.

Do you have any advice for people who are intimidated by the idea of ​​going to group lessons?

I think all group leaders, especially if individuals enter a program specifically for people struggling with their mental health, will be able to welcome them and give them that encouragement.

But it is important to manage their expectations of themselves. I think that’s the key, because with depression, often times you can either have such low expectations that you find it hard to go there in the first place, or you can have unrealistic high expectations of yourself.

With exercise, you might expect to be where you were. Someone who was in the gym all the time and is now depressed can expect to be able to last the whole session, or even be the fittest in the class. It’s really important that they manage their expectations. Maybe it’s just to get to class, or to do 20 minutes out of 40. Have small, achievable expectations, then revisit them once you’ve reached them.

How do I find group lessons?

There is a GP referral system. Your GP can refer individuals to local gyms that have specific PT counselors who will give them a program. It will be access to an individual program, but it will also be access to group lessons. Obviously, people can also use the gyms they are connected to, depending on their circumstances.

If you prefer to exercise alone, can you still reap the benefits?

There are many benefits to exercising in a group, but we also know that in depression, group interventions may be less appreciated, whether it is group exercise or therapy. of group. It can be harder to get people to commit. Individual programs and individual means for people to engage are therefore necessary and crucial here.

We talked about feeling intimidated but also about depression, people sometimes can’t go. They are not at that stage to be able to access these group programs. Or it could be geographical reasons – people may be in the countryside and not have a local leisure centre. Or they might have a physical thing that doesn’t allow them. And so the ability to be able to do online videos and exercises at home is quite crucial. It may not be a group environment, but exercising in this environment will really help lift someone’s mood and release those endorphins.

With My Possible Self, there are series where individuals are guided through the process to engage in different types of exercises.

You don’t get much interest or fun when you’re depressed, so it’s essential that the activity be short, simple, and of some interest to you. Otherwise, you are less likely to do so.

How much exercise should you do?

NICE recommends 30 minutes of exercise a day, but the thing to emphasize is that it’s not just about the type of exercise and finding something that works for you, it’s also about starting with what is manageable for you. If you start with 10 minutes and gradually increase to 30 minutes a day, you will get more and more benefits. It’s about starting somewhere. If you do 10 minutes, you get a lot of endorphins and a sense of accomplishment, which then motivates you to do the extra 10 minutes, until you hit the recommended 30 minutes a day, and all that following is a bonus.

my possible me is a free mental health app approved by the NHS

About our expert
Niamh Maguire
About our expert

Niamh Maguire


BSc (Hons) Psychology and Social Welfare
PG Counseling Skills Certificate
PG Diploma in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
MSc Psychology
EMDR (parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 completed)
BABCP accredited

Maguire has worked in mental health services since 2008. She completed an undergraduate degree in psychology and then began training in psychotherapy in 2011, where she completed initial training in counseling and then completed specialized training in therapy cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in 2013. Maguire also completed a master’s degree in psychology and trained as an EMDR therapist in 2019.

Maguire has worked with the Priory since 2012 as a CBT therapist and clinical supervisor in both inpatient (hospitalization) and outpatient therapy settings, providing therapy to those with varying mental health presentations. She currently serves as Therapy Service and Operational Director for all eight Wellness Centers across the UK, providing clinical, operational and strategic leadership, as well as working within the management team to provide innovation and expertise to the development and growth of private services at the Priory.

Maguire has also worked as a senior CBT therapist in NHS IAPT services, as a mental health clinical and training manager (particularly for corporate providers) in private healthcare and has also worked lecturer positions at London South Bank University and the University of Canterbury teaching on undergraduate and masters programs in CBT and counselling.

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