More Evidence That Physical Activity Prevents Depression

Higher levels of physical activity serve as a protective factor for the future development of depression.


A new study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, investigates the effect of physical activity on depression levels. The results of the random-effects meta-analysis examining baseline physical activity and incident depression indicate that higher levels of physical activity serve as a protective factor against the future development of depression.

“Our results indicate that higher levels of physical activity offer a protective effect on future development of depression for people of all ages (youths, working-age adults, elderly persons), and this finding is robust across geographical regions around the world,” the researchers report.

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As one of the most common mental health disorders in the US, depression is a familiar experience for many people. While most often treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), this first-line treatment has been criticized as causing additional psychopathological and medical problems with long-term use. With mounting evidence cautioning the use of SSRIs, researchers are turning their attention to alternative treatments.

Non-Pharmacological Treatments (NPTs) for depression have been gaining support as safe and effective options for treatment and prevention. Treatments such as mindfulness, psychotherapy, and physical exercise are examples of common and well-researched alternatives to SSRIs for addressing depressive disorders.

“People with major depressive disorder are known to have a 50% odds of not meeting the recommended physical activity levels (e.g., performing >150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week) compared with people without major depression.”

While previous reviews have suggested that physical activity can be protective against the development of depression, the current study is the first pooled meta-analysis investigating this relationship. The pooled meta-analysis gives a more robust picture of the relationship between depression and exercise levels than an accumulation of separately analyzed studies.

For this project, Dr. Schuch and his team analyzed 49 studies which include over 200,000 individuals, with nearly equal sex distribution, various ages, and conducted across multiple geographical regions. Potential moderators such as sample size, length of follow-up, and study quality were investigated to see if these provided significant explanations of the variance in the effects of physical activity on depression. The researchers report the following results:

“Compared with people with low levels of physical activity, those with high levels had lower odds of developing depression (adjusted odds ratio=0.83, 95% CI=0.79, 0.88; I2=0.00). Furthermore, physical activity had a protective effect against the emergence of depression in youths (adjusted odds ratio=0.90, 95% CI=0.83, 0.98), in adults (adjusted odds ratio=0.78, 95% CI=0.70, 0.87), and in elderly persons (adjusted odds ratio=0.79, 95% CI=0.72, 0.86). No moderators were identified.”

While further studies are required to investigate the minimum physical activity levels required and the impact of different physical activity types, the current study provides an important contribution to a growing body of literature pushing for preventative measures dealing with depression. The researchers conclude:

“Our data further emphasize the importance of policies targeting increased physical activity levels. Randomized controlled trials are required to address whether or not physical activity can prevent the development of depression in those at high risk.”



Schuch, F. B., Vancampfort, D., Firth, J., Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P. B., Silva, E. S., … & Fleck, M. P. (2018). Physical activity and incident depression: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. American Journal of Psychiatry, appi-ajp. (Link)


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. It’s pretty pathetic that so much research must be done to educate our “mental health professionals” to the common sense reality that being physically fit and exercising is beneficial to one’s health.

    But I know our “mental health professionals” don’t have any common sense. According to one of my doctors, common sense = “millions of voices,” how insane can you get? According to my medical records, my psychologist harbored odd delusions that exercising regularly, which resulted in me losing the 30 pounds I gained after having my children, caused “depression.”

    I was pleased I’d lost the weight, not “depressed.” I had no idea the “mental health professionals” thought good was bad, up was down, and right was wrong. But I guess they can’t convince themselves healthy people are insane, without everything they believe, being wrong.

    CIA Director William Casey, “We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.” Well, at least everything the “mental health professionals” believe is false.

    “Give up all your activities and concentrate on the meds,” no, bad advise. Exercise is, indeed, a healthy activity. And the antidepressants are, indeed, a dangerous class of drugs, as are all the other psych drugs.

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  2. Physical activity is just one way of coping with life’s unavoidable disappointments. But thanks to the DSM, perceiving oneself as “suffering from depression” or “battling/having depression” is now another way to cope with them. This article is making a value judgment by saying one coping style is “healthier” than the other, and thereby supporting psychiatry’s medicalization of everyday life.

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    • I can’t tell if Dr.Kelmenson putting forward a critique of how discourses of “healthiness” are utilized by various medical industries (including psychiatry) to browbeat and coerse people into buying their products, or if he’s saying something silly, which is that no one should ever make value judgments. Hmmm…

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  3. Not sure why MIA would report on a study that views depression through a medical lense, that is, a condition with symptoms, treatment and preventative measures. Most importantly though, a lense that ignores context and the life circumstances which contribute to these feelings, provide explanations for it and should inform any efforts to assist us feeling better

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    • I think MIA sometimes just reports on relevant research, most of which is written from the “medical model” viewpoint. It is a bit frustrating, but the report does offer up some good information that actually supports the idea that external conditions and events (in this case, physical activity) have a major impact in how people feel and behave. So I’d rather read the information and put their comments into perspective rather than filtering out anything that uses medical model language, which would mean missing a lot of interesting data.

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  4. I have a different opinion….this is news….what could be more important
    than physical activity and healthy eating to help those of us that are
    anxious and depressed…I thought MIA had to do with science and psychiatry..
    and when I say psychiatry I say the good with the bad…it seems that it is
    difficult to see the good….there is information available that connects
    lifestyle factors to brain function…it is a mistake to just look at bad psychiatry…

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