Exercise is even more effective than counseling or medication for depression. But how much do you need?

The world is currently facing a mental health crisis, with millions of people reporting depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. According to recent estimates, nearly half of all Australians will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime.
Mental health disorders come at a great cost to both the individual and society, with depression and anxiety among the leading causes of health-related disease burden.
The COVID pandemic is compounding the situation, with a significant increase in rates of psychological distress affecting a third of people.
While traditional treatments such as therapy and medication can be effective, our new research highlights the importance of exercise in managing these conditions.
Our recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed over 1,000 research trials examining the effects of physical activity on depression, anxiety and psychological distress. It has shown that exercise is an effective way to treat mental health issues – and can be even more effective than medication or counseling.
Harder, Faster, Stronger We reviewed 97 review articles, which involved 1039 trials and 128,119 participants. We found that doing 150 minutes a week of various types of physical activity (such as brisk walking, weight lifting and yoga) significantly reduced depression, anxiety and psychological distress compared to usual care (such as medication).
The greatest improvements (as reported by participants) were seen in people with depression, HIV, kidney disease, in pregnant and postpartum women, and in healthy individuals, although clear benefits were seen in all populations.
We have found that the higher the intensity of exercise, the more beneficial it is. For example, walking at a fast pace instead of walking at a normal pace. And exercising for six to 12 weeks has the greatest benefits, rather than shorter periods. Long-term exercise is important to maintain improvements in mental health.
How much more effective? When comparing the size of exercise benefits to other common treatments for mental health conditions from previous systematic reviews, our findings suggest that exercise is about 1.5 times more effective than medication or cognitive behavioral therapy.
In addition, exercise has additional benefits compared to medication, such as reduced cost, fewer side effects, and extra gains for physical health, such as healthier body weight, improved cardiovascular and bone health, and cognitive benefits.
Why It Works Exercise is believed to affect mental health through multiple pathways and with both short- and long-term effects. Immediately after exercise, endorphins and dopamine are released in the brain.
In the short term, this helps to improve mood and reduce stress. Over the long term, the release of neurotransmitters in response to exercise promotes changes in the brain that help with mood and cognition, decrease inflammation and boost immune function, all of which influence our brain function and mental health.
Regular exercise can lead to better sleep, which plays a critical role in depression and anxiety. It also has psychological benefits, such as increased self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment, all of which are beneficial for people struggling with depression.
Not such an ‘alternative’ treatment The results highlight the crucial role of exercise in managing depression, anxiety and psychological distress.
Some clinical guidelines already recognize the role of exercise – for example, the Australian and New Zealand Clinical Guidelines suggest medication, psychotherapy and lifestyle changes such as exercise.
However, other leading bodies, such as the American Psychological Association’s Clinical Practice Guidelines, only emphasize medication and psychotherapy and list exercise as an “alternative” treatment – in the same category as treatments like acupuncture. While the “alternative” label can mean many things when it comes to treatment, it tends to suggest that it falls outside of mainstream medicine or lacks a clear evidence base. None of these things are true of exercise for mental health.
Even in Australia, medication and psychotherapy tend to be more commonly prescribed than exercise. This may be because exercise is difficult to prescribe and monitor in clinical settings. And patients can be resistant because they feel low on energy or motivation.
But don’t “do it yourself” It’s important to note that while exercise can be an effective tool to manage mental health issues, people with mental health issues should work with a healthcare professional to develop a comprehensive treatment plan – instead of going it alone with a new exercise regimen.
A treatment plan may include a combination of lifestyle approaches such as regular exercise, balanced eating and socialization, along with treatments such as psychotherapy and medication.

But exercise shouldn’t be seen as a “nice-to-have” option. It’s a powerful, affordable tool for managing mental health issues — and the best part is, it’s free and comes with loads of additional health benefits.

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

Exercise is even more effective than counseling or medication for depression. But how much do you need?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top