The University of South Australia is calling for exercise to be the main approach for managing depression, as opposed to medication or counselling.
Exercise has been hailed for its benefits for mental health and other diseases, including reducing the risk of major illnesses, improving mood and aiding better sleep. Now, a team of researchers from Australia have found that exercise could be the answer to managing depression symptoms in an extensive analysis of evidence.
According to the World Health Organization, one in eight people live with a mental disorder. The cost of mental health in healthcare systems is approximately $2.5 trillion each year, a cost projected to rise to $6tn by 2030. More accessible interventions must be in place for managing depression, anxiety and other conditions.
The research is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Managing depression with exercise and other interventions
Depression affects people in different ways and can cause a variety of symptoms. Symptoms vary from mild to severe and include unhappiness, feeling tearful, and hopelessness.
The NHS recommends multiple strategies for managing depression. This includes socialising, being more active, reducing alcohol intake, eating a healthy diet, having a routine and seeking medical help.
Reviewing data from 128,119 participants
The researchers have conducted the most comprehensive analysis to date, using data from 97 reviews, 1039 trials and 128,119 participants. It showed that exercise is extremely beneficial for improving and managing depression, anxiety, and distress symptoms.
Specifically, the review showed that exercise interventions that were 12 weeks or shorter were most effective at reducing mental health symptoms, highlighting the speed at which physical activity can make a change.
The largest benefits were noted in people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals, and people diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.
Lead UniSA researcher, Dr Ben Singh, said physical activity must be prioritised to better manage the growing cases of mental health conditions.
“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment,” Dr Singh added.
“Our review shows that physical activity interventions can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement. Higher-intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts.
“We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercises such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga. Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health.”
Senior researcher UniSA’s Prof Carol Maher said the study is the first to evaluate the effects of all types of physical activity on depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in all adult populations.
“Examining these studies as a whole is an effective way for clinicians to easily understand the body of evidence that supports physical activity in managing mental health disorders.
“We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety.”