Depression afflicts over 300 million people globally, making it a leading cause of disability worldwide. During the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of depression surged up to 28% higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Yet over two-thirds of depressed adults remain untreated or undertreated. Could exercise serve as a readily-accessible, side effect-free treatment option?
According to a new comprehensive analysis of research studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, exercise does in fact have potent antidepressant effects.
The analysis looked at over 40 studies comparing exercise programs to non-active controls in adults with clinical depression. It found that exercise led to significantly greater reductions in depressive symptoms versus controls.
The effect was large enough that the researchers calculated for every 2 people treated with exercise, at least 1 would see major improvement in depression. This was true even when only including studies ranked as high-quality research.
The benefits held up regardless of variables like depression severity, exercise duration, or exercise type. Aerobic activities like jogging showed large positive effects, as did resistance training like weight lifting.
Supervised group exercise led to better outcomes compared to unsupervised solo activity.
How does exercise impact depression? Studies suggest it releases feel-good neurotransmitters, reduces inflammation, and stimulates nerve cell growth in the brain. Moving the body also distracts from negative ruminating thoughts.
Connecting with others during group activity provides social support.
While more research is still needed, these findings indicate exercise could be a powerful first-line treatment for depression, on par with therapy and medications. Unlike pills, exercise comes with numerous physical benefits and minimal side effects.
Going for a run isn't a cure-all. But for many with depression, getting active could be an effective starting point on the path to reclaiming mental health. Consult your doctor about adding exercise alongside other lifestyle changes and treatment options best suited for your symptoms.
Moving your body could be a simple yet potent prescription, baby steps, so try a walk first!