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Evidence of Exercise as an Antidepressant Growing, but Underrecognized

August 15, 2019

Exercise is effective for both preventing and treating depression, yet the intervention does not receive the acknowledgement it warrants in clinical practice, reports a new review and meta-analysis published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

“The evidence of the use of physical activity and exercise for the management of depression is substantial and growing fast,” wrote authors Felipe Barretto Schuch, PhD, of the Federal University of Santa Maria, Brazil, and Brendon Stubbs, PhD, of King's College London. “Despite this substantial evidence, the incorporation of exercise as a key component in treatment is often inconstant and often given a low priority.”

According to the researchers’ analysis of pooled data from 49 prospective studies involving nearly 267,000 people, physical activity reduced the risk of developing depression by 17% after adjustment for various factors. The protective effect of exercise was significant across several countries and patient subgroups, they reported.

New Guidelines: Exercise Key Part of Mental Health Treatment

Another meta-analysis of 25 randomized clinical trials involving nearly 1500 patients with depression found a “very large and significant antidepressant effect” with exercise, the researchers wrote. Indeed, some studies demonstrated a single exercise session reduced symptoms in patients with major depressive disorder.

While the authors acknowledged exercise may not be equally effective for all patients, they did question clinical recommendations for depression prevention and treatment that fail to include exercise to instead focus mainly on antidepressant medications and psychotherapy.

“Addressing this issue and the current reliance on the two-pronged approach of talking therapies and medication is important in going forward,” they advised.

—Jolynn Tumolo


Schuch FB, Stubbs B. The role of exercise in preventing and treating depression. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2019; 18(8):299-304.

'Exercise as medicine' for depression – a key but often overlooked role in prevention and treatment [press release]. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Wolters Kluwer; August 1, 2019.

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