A massive new study (more than 128,000 participants analyzed) from the University of South Australia (UniSA) suggests that exercise should be the primary treatment for depression, anxiety, and other common mental health conditions.
According to what's being called "the most comprehensive review of research to date," physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than top medications and counseling for alleviating mild to moderate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress.
The study found that 12-week or shorter exercise interventions reduced mental health symptoms the most.
"Importantly, the research shows that it doesn't take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health," says lead author, clinical exercise physiologist Ben Singh from UniSA.
Mental health disorders are a leading cause of health problems around the world, with poor mental health affecting 1 in 8 people, and recent studies showing up to 1 in 5 people experience higher levels of psychological distress during middle age.
"Physical activity is known to help improve mental health," says Singh, "Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment."
So Singh and his colleagues at UniSA conducted a broad type of study called an "umbrella review" to take the broadest-ever look at the issue. An umbrella review examines a wide collection of existing studies to provide an overall picture of what the total sum of research says about a specific subject.
The research team extracted all the eligible studies published prior to 2022 from 12 electronic databases. Overall, they analyzed 97 reviews that included 1,039 trials with more than 128,119 participants. When comparing the effects of exercise to those of usual care across all populations, they found that exercise improved symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress 1.5 times better than talk therapy or medication.
The study found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga. That's right – you don't have to sign up for a marathon to get relief.
Additionally, some types of exercise seemed to help in different ways. For example, yoga and other mind-body exercises helped reduce anxiety the most, while resistance exercise helped the most with depression.
"Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts," Singh explains.
Women who were pregnant or had recently given birth, people with depression, HIV, and kidney disease, and healthy people benefited most from exercise. The researchers suggest that this may be because such populations are more likely to have higher symptoms of depression and anxiety coupled with lower levels of physical activity.
The authors of the study conclude that physical activity is highly beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress across a wide range of adult populations, and should be a first-line treatment for such mental health conditions.