Exercise is more powerful to manage depression than medication, study finds

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Researchers from the University of South Australia have found that exercise can be more effective than counseling or common medications for managing depression.

They say that exercise should be a primary way of dealing with this mental health issue.

Their study, which is the most detailed of its kind, has been published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The researchers looked at 97 other studies, 1,039 trials, and 128,119 people.

What they found was that being physically active greatly helps to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress.

The study revealed that physical activities that lasted 12 weeks or less were the best at reducing symptoms of mental health issues. This shows how quickly exercise can make a difference.

The people who benefited the most from exercise were those with depression, women who were pregnant or had recently given birth, healthy individuals, and people diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.

The Problem of Mental Health

The World Health Organization tells us that one out of every eight people worldwide (970 million people) live with a mental disorder.

This is a big problem that costs the world economy around $2.5 trillion each year. Experts predict this cost will go up to $6 trillion by 2030. In Australia, about one in five people (aged 16–85) have had a mental disorder in the past year.

Exercise as a Solution

Dr. Ben Singh, the lead researcher from UniSA, believes that physical activity needs to be a top choice for managing the growing number of mental health cases.

“We know that physical activity improves mental health. But despite the evidence, it hasn’t been widely chosen as a first-line treatment,” says Dr. Singh.

“Our review shows that physical activity can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement.

The team found that higher-intensity exercises showed greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects compared to short and mid-duration bursts.

“All types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga. It doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health,” added Dr. Singh.

Future Implications

Senior researcher, UniSA’s Prof Carol Maher, says this study is the first to evaluate the effects of all types of physical activity on depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in all adult populations.

She hopes that this review will highlight the need for physical activity, including structured exercise programs, as a primary way of managing depression and anxiety.

“Looking at these studies as a whole can help clinicians 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 as a primary way of managing depression and anxiety,” Prof Maher said.

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The study was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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