A new umbrella review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has shown that exercise is more effective than the leading medications or counseling in treating depression and other mental health disorders.
The study included 97 systematic reviews with meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials, and in total over 1,000 trials and 128,000 participants were analyzed. Participants in the trials were healthy adults, had mental health disorders, or had chronic diseases. All reviews included in the analysis measured the effects of increased exercise on either depression, anxiety, or psychological distress.
The results showed that physical activity is highly effective in treating depression, anxiety, and distress, with physical activity being about 1.5 times more effective than the usual treatments, including medication or counseling. Exercise interventions that were 12 weeks or shorter tended to have the greatest impact, and higher intensity exercise was associated with greater improvements than low-intensity exercise. Many types of physical activity led to significant improvements in mental health symptoms, including aerobic exercise, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga. Exercise interventions were particularly effective in people with depression, HIV, or kidney disease, as well as pregnant or postpartum women and healthy individuals.
One of the authors of the study stated that exercise is well-known to improve mental health, yet it is not generally the first choice of treatment for mental health disorders. Additionally, a relatively small increase in physical activity can have a significant positive impact on mental health. Physical activity is also well-known as one of the best interventions for physical health, including lowering the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, and more. The results of this study underscore the importance of physical activity for maintaining both physical and mental health.