While exercise has been known to be an effective means to improve mood for a long time now, the effects of specifically aerobic exercise (AE) in the context of treating major depression have not been clearly supported by the literature.
A new systematic review and meta-analysis of the research, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, looked at 11 randomised controlled clinical trials involving a total of 455 adult patients (aged 18-65) with major depressive disorder (MDD) who underwent AE, on average, three times per week for 45 minutes at moderate intensity, with the intervention lasting for 9.2 weeks overall.
The eligible studies (selected from a total of 19 papers) were coded with regards to the relevant characteristics of the study participants, interventions, outcomes, comparisons, and study design. Moreover, the researchers also controlled for heterogeneity and publication bias.
Results showed moderate AE to have significantly large overall antidepressant effect compared to medication and psychological treatments, with low and non-statistically significant heterogeneity, which means that differences in how the studies were set up are unlikely to confound the results.
Interestingly, AE was found to have large or moderate-to-large antidepressant effects among trials with lower risk of bias, as well as those involving short-term interventions (up to 4 weeks) and individual preference for exercise, thereby adding even more support to the likelihood that simple forms of exercise, such as jogging, might have potentially life-saving benefits.
Furthermore, subgroup analyses revealed AE to have roughly the same effectiveness across settings and delivery formats, outpatient versus inpatient arrangements, and 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 on the study Dr Ioannis D. Morres of the University of Thessaly in Greece.