A common outcome for a patient going to the doctor for depression is to leave with a prescription for medicine. But new research from the University of South Australia shows a recommendation to exercise may be a better option because physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counseling or drugs.
Researchers conducted a comprehensive study by looking at data from 97 reviews and 1,039 trials with more than 128,000 participants. The report showing the extent to which physical activity is extremely beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Exercise programs that were three months or shorter in length were the most effective at reducing mental health symptoms. That shows how rapidly physical activity interventions can affect a person’s wellbeing.
The participants included those with a wide variety of conditions and the most significant improvements were seen among people with depression, those who were pregnant or post-partum, the healthy and those with HIV or kidney disease.
The World Health Organization estimates that one in every eight people worldwide, which is nearly 1 billion people, live with a mental disorder. That results in nearly $2.5 trillion in healthcare costs per year.
"Physical activity is known to help improve mental health," Dr. Ben Singh says. "Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment. 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."
Dr. Singh commented further by saying, "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 exercise 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 Carol Maher said the study was the first to assess how various types of physical activity affected adults with depression, anxiety and other forms of psychological distress.
"Examining these studies as a whole is an effective way to for clinicians to easily understand the body of evidence that supports physical activity in managing mental health disorders," Maher said. "We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety."