Can walking — as opposed to vigorous exercise— make a positive impact on mental health and help ease depression?
A team of British researchers analyzed the data from the best exercise studies to see if walking has any kind of effect on mild to moderate depression. The findings reveal that walking may, in fact, be a promising treatment for less severe depression.
The researchers emphasize that more studies are needed to confirm these results and to establish specific details such as how often, how fast and how long a person needs to walk to experience the most mood-lifting effects. But such results are especially important given recent studies that have questioned the effectiveness of antidepressant medication for less serious cases of depression.
For this meta-analysis, researchers looked through 11 databases and more than 14,000 journal articles, searching for randomized controlled trials that investigated the effects of walking on mild to moderate depression. The chosen studies either compared walking with no treatment or with a standard treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. However, studies that bundled walking with other forms of exercise were excluded.
Only eight small clinical trials met the researchers’ criteria. Not all of these studies reported that walking eased depression. But when the results of all the studies were pooled together, the data showed a significant reduction in depression.
As the researchers point out, this meta-analysis comes with some limitations. For example, the studies that were analyzed were quite small and included a total of only 341 participants. Also, there was a wide variety in walking techniques. People walked for different lengths of time (20 to 50 minutes) and at different frequencies (from three times a week to daily).
Furthermore, some used treadmills, while others walked outdoors. Some joined organized walking groups, and others walked alone. Therefore, it is still unknown which factors were most effective for depression.
Still, “walking has the potential to produce an effect in reducing symptoms of depression comparable to other forms of physical activity,” the study’s authors conclude.
The study is published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity.