When you’re depressed, the last thing you want to hear is “get active!” As a matter of fact, nothing sounds good aside from, “crawl in bed and pull the covers over your head.” But research has shown again and again that exercise could be the solution to the symptoms associated with this sometimes-crippling mental health woe. Recently, a review that examined previous studies affirmed that people who exercise are able to reduce the severity of their depression.
The review, which comes to us from the Cochrane Library, looked at randomized, controlled trials where exercise was compared to standard treatments for depression. These standard treatments included things like therapy and prescription antidepressants. The initial review was undertaken in 2009, but has recently been updated to reflect new research.
The researchers looked at all medical trials conducted through March 2013, isolating those that compared exercise to traditional treatments. In all, they found 35 trials including 711 participants assigned to exercise groups and 642 to comparison groups.
Lead study author Dr. Gillian Mead from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and her colleagues converted the measurements to a standard form to compensate for the various scales in the different studies. They established a scale where a difference between the exercise group and the traditional treatment group of 0.2 represented a small effect, 0.5 a moderate effect, and 0.8 a large effect.
On average, there was a -0.62 difference in depression symptoms favoring those who used exercise as their treatment method. This marks a fairly dramatic effect.
The study authors conclude:
“Exercise is moderately more effective than a control intervention for reducing symptoms of depression, but analysis of methodologically robust trials only shows a smaller effect in favour of exercise. When compared to psychological or pharmacological therapies, exercise appears to be no more effective, though this conclusion is based on a few small trials.”
Harvard reports on previous studies coming to similar conclusions:
“…A review of studies stretching back to 1981 concluded that regular exercise can improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression. It also may play a supporting role in treating severe depression.
Another study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999, [found that] at the 16-week mark, depression had eased in all three groups. About 60%–70% of the people in all three groups could no longer be classed as having major depression…This suggests that for those who need or wish to avoid drugs, exercise might be an acceptable substitute for antidepressants.
A follow-up to that study found that exercise’s effects lasted longer than those of antidepressants…They found that the people who exercised regularly after completing the study, regardless of which treatment they were on originally, were less likely to relapse into depression.
A study published in 2005 found that walking fast for about 35 minutes a day five times a week or 60 minutes a day three times a week had a significant influence on mild to moderate depression symptoms.
Bottom line? Like anything else, exercise may not be the end-all solution for everyone, but countless individuals and numerous studies can attest to the ability of exercise to repel feelings of sadness.