Physical activity: a mainstay treatment for mental disorders

5 April 2023

Largest meta-analysis to-date confirms that physical activity effectively reduces depression, anxiety and psychological distress.

In the most comprehensive review (2023) of global studies to date (1,097 trials, 128,000+ participants), University of South Australia researchers found that exercise should be the mainstay treatment for depression, anxiety and psychological distress. Every type of exercise—from walking to resistance training to yoga—proved beneficial. The benefits were seen in every clinical population, with the biggest impact on people with major depressive disorder and those who did supervised exercise.

Findings suggest that Physical Activity (PA) interventions are effective in improving symptoms of depression and anxiety. Improvements were observed across all clinical populations, though the magnitude of effect varied across different clinical populations. The greatest benefits were seen in people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, apparently healthy individuals and individuals diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.

The larger effect sizes observed in clinical populations may reflect that these populations experience above-average symptoms of depression and anxiety and have low PA levels, and, therefore, have a greater scope for improvement compared with non-clinical populations.

Despite the evidence for the benefits of PA, it has not been widely adopted therapeutically. Patient resistance, the difficulty of prescribing and monitoring PA in clinical settings, as well as the huge volume of largely incommensurable studies, have probably impeded a wider take-up in practice.

All modes of PA are effective, with moderate-to-high intensities more effective than low intensity. Larger benefits are achieved from shorter interventions, which has health service delivery cost implications–suggesting that benefits can be obtained following short-term interventions, and intensive long-term interventions are not necessarily required to achieve therapeutic benefit.

Source: British Journal of Sports Medicine

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