Mental Health

Here's why exercise is such a good tool in treating depression

Scientists believe exercise should be a front-line rather than just add-on treatment for depression.

Scientists believe exercise should be a front-line rather than just add-on treatment for depression. Image: Unsplash/ Gabin Vallet

Yeji Jesse Lee
Healthcare reporter, Insider
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  • A new paper that analyzed data from 41 studies found exercise had a hugely positive impact on depression.
  • It improved depressive symptoms at least as much as other treatments, according to the researchers.
  • They said that exercise should be offered as "an evidence-based treatment option" for patients.

While we've known for a long time that exercise can improve your mood and that it offers a bunch of other health benefits, a new study suggests that it should be thought of as a serious treatment option for depression.

The paper, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in February, looked at data from 41 papers that tracked 2,264 people with depression to see how exercise would affect their symptoms. The researchers found that the effects of exercise on depression were substantial enough that it should be offered as "an evidence-based treatment option" for the disease.

"We found large, significant results," Andreas Heissel, a researcher at the University of Potsdam in Germany and lead author of the study, told the Washington Post. "We expect this review to lead to updated guidelines and recommendations for exercise as a first-line treatment option."

Current guidelines from organizations like the World Health Organization say that exercise can be added on to treatments like therapy and medications. But Felipe Schuch, a professor at the University of Santa Maria in Brazil and senior author of the study, told the Washington Post that the data showed exercise provided "somewhat better" outcomes than treatments regularly prescribed for depression today, like medicine and talk therapy.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine study was a meta-analysis, meaning it gathered data from many other studies to make stronger conclusions about the effects of exercise on depression, drawing on many patient groups from various countries. The researchers said that their findings were the largest study to date of the effect of exercise on depression and depressive symptoms.

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The scientists added that more research needs to be done to consider exercise a "first-line treatment" for depression, recommended at the same level as psychotherapy and medication, instead of just the add-on treatment it's thought of as today.

The researchers, who came from institutions like the University of Potsdam in Germany, the University of Santa Maria in Brazil, and the University of Manchester in England, among other places, said that future studies should look at whether exercise is effective as a long-term treatment and whether it may not be a good treatment for certain groups.

They said that the studies they reviewed included participants who were willing and motivated to exercise and excluded individuals for whom exercise may pose a risk due to existing health issues. Not everyone has access to quality forms of exercise, they added.

Any kind of exercise helps, though certain kinds are more effective at treating depression than others

The studies the researchers looked at included a variety of different kinds of exercise, from walking to weight training among others.

Exercise of any kind helped to improve symptoms, as measured by the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale and Beck Depression Inventory, two standard tests that measure the severity of depressive symptoms in patients. But certain ones stood out as particularly effective.

Aerobic exercise and resistance training had big effects on reducing depression symptoms, the authors noted, as did supervised and group exercises of "moderate intensity."

A 2021 study from researchers at the University of Gothenburg suggested that any type of consistent exercise has benefits for conditions like depression and anxiety. A 2018 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that strength training can help treat depression just as well as aerobic exercise.

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The authors of the recent paper said that their analysis offers evidence for exercise as a possible treatment option for the large number of patients with depression, especially those who cannot use medication or psychotherapy as treatments.

They added that updated guidelines for depression treatments and routine clinical decisions should consider the findings of the study.

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