Researchers conclude exercise is effective in treating depression and should be offered as an evidence-based treatment option.
The largest synthesis of data to date from research studies on the effect of exercise on depression found that exercise is as effective as antidepressant drugs or psychotherapy, the current first-line treatments for depression, and should be offered as an evidence-based treatment option. The study provides evidence for exercise as an alternative treatment for depressed individuals who do not want drugs or psychotherapy.
Researchers from seven countries set out to address the problem of the mixed results from previous meta-analyses of studies on the effect of exercise on depression. Convincing evidence was needed to enable clinicians to prescribe exercise as an evidence-based treatment option. Using updated methodology to overcome the shortcomings of previous meta-analyses, researchers analyzed the results of 41 randomized controlled trials comprising 2,264 depressed adults and compared exercise with non-exercising control groups.
Their review, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, showed exercise has a large effect in reducing depression symptoms. For every two depressed people treated with exercise, at least one would be expected to have a substantial reduction in depression symptoms, the researchers found.
This significant benefit was found regardless of the type or intensity of the exercise or whether done in a group or not. Aerobic exercise was more effective than resistance training, but both delivered large benefits. Moderate intensity was more beneficial than light or vigorous intensity, but all reduced depression symptoms. Supervised and group exercise were found to deliver more positive effects than unsupervised and non-group.
“This is notable as the presented results suggest exercise [qualifies] as an efficacious treatment option for depressive symptoms among individuals with depression.”
— Andreas Heissel, PhD, University of Potsdam, Germany
“The findings from this review represent the most up-to-date and comprehensive meta-analysis of the available evidence and further supports the use of exercise focusing specifically on supervised and group exercise with moderate intensity and aerobic exercise regimes,” according to the study’s lead author, Andreas Heissel, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department for Sports and Health Sciences at the University of Potsdam, Germany.
The large positive effect on depression symptoms from exercise compares favorably with the results from two meta-analyses referenced in the study, one showing just a moderate effect from psychotherapy and the other showing only a small effect from antidepressants, according to Heissel.
Exercise also avoids the side effects and withdrawal symptoms associated with antidepressants and the significant expense of psychotherapy.
“This is notable as the presented results suggest exercise [qualifies] as an efficacious treatment option for depressive symptoms among individuals with depression,” wrote Heissel.
The prescribing of antidepressants was questioned in a recent study that found no scientific evidence to support the theory that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain, a common rationale for prescribing antidepressants.
“The serotonin theory of depression has been one of the most influential and extensively researched biological theories of the origins of depression,” wrote lead researcher Joanna Moncrieff, a psychiatrist and professor at University College London. “Our study shows that this view is not supported by scientific evidence. It also calls into question the basis for the use of antidepressants.”
WARNING: Anyone wishing to discontinue or change the dose of a psychiatric drug is cautioned to do so only under the supervision of a physician because of potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.