Summary: Exercise intervention that lasts 12 weeks or less appears to be most effective at reducing mental health symptoms, especially for those suffering from anxiety and depression. Higher-intensity exercise proved more beneficial in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression than longer-duration programs.
Source: University of South Australia
University of South Australia researchers are calling for exercise to be a mainstay approach for managing depression as a new study shows that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counseling or the leading medications.
Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the review is the most comprehensive to date, encompassing 97 reviews, 1,039 trials and 128,119 participants. It shows that physical activity is extremely beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress.
Specifically, the review showed that exercise interventions that were 12 weeks or shorter were most the effective at reducing mental health symptoms, highlighting the speed at which physical activity can make a change.
The largest benefits were seen among people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals, and people diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.
According to the World Health Organization, one in every eight people worldwide (970 million people) live with a mental disorder. Poor mental health costs the world economy approximately $2.5 trillion each year, a cost projected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030. In Australia, an estimated one in five people (aged 16–85) have experienced a mental disorder in the past 12 months.
Lead UniSA researcher, Dr. Ben Singh, says physical activity must be prioritized to better manage the growing cases of mental health conditions.
“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment,” Dr. Singh says. “Our review 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 durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts.
“We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga.
“Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health.”
Senior researcher, UniSA’s Prof Carol Maher, says the study is the first to evaluate the effects of all types of physical activity on depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in all adult populations. “Examining these studies as a whole is an effective way to for clinicians to easily 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, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety.”
About this exercise and mental health research news
Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews
To synthesise the evidence on the effects of physical activity on symptoms of depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adult populations.
Twelve electronic databases were searched for eligible studies published from inception to 1 January 2022.
Eligibility criteria for selecting studies
Systematic reviews with meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials designed to increase physical activity in an adult population and that assessed depression, anxiety or psychological distress were eligible. Study selection was undertaken in duplicate by two independent reviewers.
Ninety-seven reviews (1039 trials and 128 119 participants) were included. Populations included healthy adults, people with mental health disorders and people with various chronic diseases. Most reviews (n=77) had a critically low A MeaSurement Tool to Assess systematic Reviews score. Physical activity had medium effects on depression (median effect size=−0.43, IQR=−0.66 to –0.27), anxiety (median effect size=−0.42, IQR=−0.66 to –0.26) and psychological distress (effect size=−0.60, 95% CI −0.78 to –0.42), compared with usual care across all populations. The largest benefits were seen in people with depression, HIV and kidney disease, in pregnant and postpartum women, and in healthy individuals. Higher intensity physical activity was associated with greater improvements in symptoms. Effectiveness of physical activity interventions diminished with longer duration interventions.
Conclusion and relevance
Physical activity is highly beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress across a wide range of adult populations, including the general population, people with diagnosed mental health disorders and people with chronic disease. Physical activity should be a mainstay approach in the management of depression, anxiety and psychological distress.