Researchers at the University of South Australia are calling for exercise to be made a mainstay for managing depression as a new study shows that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counseling or the leading drugs.
The review, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, is the most comprehensive to date and includes 97 reviews, 1039 trials and 128,119 participants. It shows that physical activity is extremely beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety and fear.
In particular, the review showed that exercise interventions of 12 weeks or less were most effective in reducing psychological symptoms, highlighting the speed at which physical activity can bring about a change.
The greatest benefits were seen in people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals, and those diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.
According to the World Health Organization, one in eight people worldwide (970 million people) live with a mental disorder. Poor mental health costs the global economy about $2.5 trillion each year, a cost that is expected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030. In Australia, it is estimated that one in five people (aged 16-85) has been diagnosed with had a mental disorder for months.
UniSA lead researcher Dr Ben Singh says physical activity should be a priority to better manage the growing cases of mental illness.
“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. But despite the evidence, it is not yet widely accepted as a treatment of choice,” says Dr. Singh.
‘Our research 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.
Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer duration had smaller effects compared to short and medium bursts.
“We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercises such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga.”
“Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much exercise to bring about positive change in your mental health.”
Senior researcher, Prof. Carol Maher of UniSA, says the study is the first to evaluate the effects of all types of physical activity on depression, anxiety and mental health problems in all adult populations.
“Examining these studies as a whole is an effective way for clinicians to easily understand the body of evidence supporting physical activity in managing mental disorders.
“We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay for managing depression and anxiety.”