Exercise is an important—and often overlooked—strategy for both preventing and treating depression, according to a research review in the August 2019 issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports.
Among the research cited was the authors’ own meta-analysis of 49 cohort studies, including nearly 267,000 participants, that followed people who were not depressed at baseline for a year or longer to see if their physical activity level influenced their chance of developing depression. After adjusting for other factors that could influence depression risk, it found that higher levels of physical activity and exercise reduced the chance of developing depression by 17 percent overall. The protective effect was consistent across all ages and all of the countries studied.
In an earlier meta-analysis, the same authors looked at 25 randomized, controlled trials testing the effects of exercise as a treatment in people who already had depression. They found that exercise training had a “very large and significant antidepressant effect” compared to various control interventions.
While there is considerable evidence that exercise is helpful in treating depression, the authors note that it’s inconsistently incorporated in existing treatment guidelines, which focus mainly on antidepressants and psychotherapy (neither of which work for everyone). Factors identified in the review as increasing the likelihood of starting and sustaining an exercise program include finding an enjoyable activity, having support from friends and family, and being supervised by a fitness professional.
Also see A Diet for Depression.