Exercising your way out of depression

Exercise can be a powerful tool to fight depression and should be routinely prescribed as part of treatment plans, according to University of Queensland research.

Dr Michael Noetel from UQ’s School of Psychology reviewed more than 200 studies looking at the effect of exercise, psychotherapy and antidepressants in treating depression.

"We found activities such as walking, jogging, yoga and strength training were extremely beneficial for treating depression," Dr Noetel said.

"Strength training was found to be an especially effective exercise for younger women, whereas older men received the most benefit from yoga.

"We know people often respond well to medication and psychotherapy for depression, but many are resistant to treatment.

"We found exercise should be considered alongside traditional interventions as a core treatment for depression.

"Of course, anyone getting treatment for depression should talk to their doctor before changing what they are doing, but most people can start walking without many barriers."

Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide and has been found to lower life satisfaction more than divorce, debt or diabetes.

It can also lead to other health problems such as anxiety, heart disease and cancer.

Dr Noetel said exercise should be prescribed as part of a person’s treatment plan for depression.

"As well as improving our physical and cognitive health, exercise is one of the best things we can do for our mental health," he said.

"Different types of exercise work in different ways - some are social and get us outside while others help us become more confident or get more space from our thoughts.

"But all exercise releases neurotransmitters that can change the way we are feeling.

"If exercise was a pill, it would fly off the shelves."

Dr Noetel said they found people given a clear and structured program for physical activity did better.

"But no matter how often people exercised, whether they had other health issues or how severe their depression was, in all scenarios, exercise had a meaningful impact on their depression," he said.

"More support is needed to help people get going with physical activity, and to keep going.

"Prescriptions for exercise for those with depression also need to be personalised and take into consideration the individual’s circumstances, to ensure it’s the most effective plan for them."

The researchers noted some of the studies included in their review had limitations, and further high quality studies were needed.

The research paper is published in The BMJ.