Although research has shown a link between exercise and reduced levels of depression, few studies have established the effects of aerobic exercise (AE) interventions on clinically depressed adult patients.
The purpose of this meta‐analysis was to look at the antidepressant effects of AE versus nonexercise therapies exclusively in depressed adults (18–65 years) who had been recruited through mental health services with a referral or clinical diagnosis of major depression.
The study looked at 11 trials involving 455 adult patients with major depression as their primary disorder. The participants engaged in supervised aerobic exercise for an average of 45 minutes at moderate intensity, 3 times per week for 9.2 weeks.
The AE intervention showed a significantly large overall antidepressant effect compared with antidepressant medication and/or psychological therapies.
Importantly, aerobic exercise revealed moderate-to-large antidepressant effects among trials with lower risk of bias, as well as large antidepressant effects among trials with short-term interventions (up to 4 weeks) and trials involving preferences for exercise.
Subgroup analyses showed similar effects for aerobic exercise across various settings and delivery formats, and in both outpatients and inpatients regardless of symptom severity.
“Collectively, this study has found that supervised aerobic exercise can significantly support major depression treatment in mental health services,” said lead author Dr. Ioannis D. Morres from the University of Thessaly in Greece.
Major depressive disorder affects around 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older, in a given year. While major depressive disorder can develop at any age, the median age at onset is 32. As many as one in 33 children and one in eight adolescents have clinical depression. It is more prevalent in women than in men.
Depression in adults has been associated with several other chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and chronic kidney disease, which can influence whether antidepressants are likely to help. For patients with these types of conditions, exercise may be particularly helpful.
In fact, previous research has shown that middle-aged people with high fitness levels are much less likely to eventually die from heart disease following a depression diagnosis.