Effects of Exercise on Depression Underestimated, Review Finds


A new meta-analysis finds that the large antidepressant effects of exercise may have been underestimated in previous reviews. This latest report, published this month in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, examines twenty-five previous studies and concludes that regular exercise has a large and significant antidepressant effect in people diagnosed with moderate and severe depression.

“The effects of exercise on depression have been a source of contentious debate,” the researchers, led by Felipe Schuch, write. “Previous meta-analyses may have underestimated the benefits of exercise due to publication bias. Our data strongly support the claim that exercise is an evidence-based treatment for depression.”


While past research has demonstrated a consistent antidepressant effect for exercise, there has been controversy over exactly how large the effect actually is. In 2013, a Cochrane analysis found that when the review was limited only to high-quality studies with a low risk of bias the effect of exercise on depression was small and non-significant.

The Cochrane review has come under scrutiny, however, and new high-quality randomized control trials on the effects of exercise in depression have since been published. The new study aims to expand upon and update the Cochrane analysis while also investigating the effects of publication bias.

The researchers examined twenty-five total trials which included data on nearly 1,500 adults with depression. After adjusting for publication bias, they found that exercise had a large and significant effect on depression when compared to controls. For those diagnosed with major depressive disorder, the effects of exercise were found to be even greater.

Their results also indicate that both aerobic and mixed exercises were effective at reducing depression symptoms and that moderate and vigorous exercises were more effective than those of light intensity. Those who had training supervised by professionals also fared better than those who exercised on their own.

“Overall, our results provide robust evidence that exercise can be considered an evidence-based treatment for the management of depression,” the researchers write. “The fail-safe assessment suggests that more than a thousand studies with negative results would be needed to nullify the effects of exercise on depression.”

The updated review found a larger effect size for exercise than the earlier Cochrane analysis. The study authors attribute this difference to the fact that they excluded studies that compared exercise to other active treatments and included updated results from new studies published after the Cochrane analysis.



Schuch, F.B., Vancampfort, D., Richards, J., Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P.B. and Stubbs, B., 2016. Exercise as a treatment for depression: a meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Journal of psychiatric research77, pp.42-51. (Full Text)


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Justin Karter
MIA Research News Editor: Justin M. Karter is the lead research news editor for Mad in America. He completed his doctorate in Counseling Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He also holds graduate degrees in both Journalism and Community Psychology from Point Park University. He brings a particular interest in examining and decoding cultural narratives of mental health and reimagining the institutions built on these assumptions.


  1. Glad to see the research catching up with what many of us know. Exercise really helps us keep going and reduce and eliminate sadness and depression. My daily 3 mile walk has kept me moving for decades better than any antidepressant ever could and with no negative side effects!

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  2. Natural processes are the best way to cure depression.I battled depression for years, and I am so grateful that I managed to fight that daemon off.
    For anyone suffering from depression,
    I recommend something that has helped me a lot. It is James Gordon’s system at http://lookingupstuff.com/mentalhealth/2015/02/06/how-to-destroy-depression/
    He is a former depression sufferer, and teaches a totally natural 7 step process which relieves depression from your life.

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    • I don’t think that they’re saying that exercise is the only thing to use for depression. It takes a number of things working together to combat all of this. This is why it is so important to have a number of alternatives for people to use since we are all so different and need different approaches to keep ourselves in good emotional and mental shape. How many people can afford talk therapy these days? So, I’ll take exercise over nothing at this point. Perhaps if you can lower the level of sadness with the use of exercise perhaps then you can see some things more clearly for yourself and you can begin working on them.

      I prefer the term issues rather than mental disorders.

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      • I agree, the main point is that exercise addresses the physiological side of depression in the short term, just as antidepressants are supposed to do. And it appears that exercise is both more effective and has fewer dangerous side effects. So in direct comparison to antidepressants, exercise should be by far the first choice. Naturally, one would need to address causal factors such as childhood abuse, bad relationships, boring, dead-end jobs, and so on to have a long-term impact in most cases, but if you just want to feel better today, an uphill hike in a nearby forest is probably a way better bet than a visit to your local psychiatrist.

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  3. While I acknowledge the important role exercise plays for many in the treatment of their depression, I think it is equally important to acknowledge that it does not work for everyone. I frequently read articles that talk about exercise as a kind of cure all, almost in the same way my family has suggested I just “take a walk” on days I can’t even get out of bed.

    I have forced myself to walk, I have forced myself to go to the gym at times when nothing else would work. I didn’t do it just once or twice, but for months. And no, it didn’t help AT ALL.

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  4. In 2011, an idiot surgeon determined that because I had broken my leg ages ago and was experiencing some transient pain, I would never run nor walk again. I was naive enough to tell my abusive therapist this bogus diagnosis. Her entire face lit up. She said, “Yay!” I knew this woman was cruel, but I had not realized she was THAT cruel. When I tried to confront her, she insisted that it was a good thing that I’d never exercise again and that I should, at age 53, “slow down.”

    I am not “hyper” nor ever among my litany of psych complaints had trouble with focusing on academic assignments as per ADHD. Was this a joke? What the heck did she mean by “slow down”? I concluded that this woman was far more controlling and abusive than I had ever before realized. She had insisted that I pay money for cabs so I wouldn’t “burn calories” by walking. Any time I mentioned walking to do simple errands she stuck her controlling paws into my life. I knew I needed to ditch this problematic person and rid myself of her once and for all. I realized, also, that her need to control and manipulate me was deep-seated, complex, and desperate, and that she would stop at nothing. I knew I had to be careful.

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