Exercise Leads to Best Outcomes for Depression

New meta-analysis reveals that exercise beats both antidepressants and CBT for depression.


A massive new meta-analysis has found that exercise through walking or jogging is better than antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy for treating depression. Antidepressants by themselves were the worst treatment for depression, with effectiveness that overlapped with placebo. A variety of physical activities, exercise combined with antidepressants, and psychotherapy performed better than drugs alone.

“We found some forms of exercise to have stronger effects than SSRIs alone,” the researchers write. They add, “Exercise may therefore be considered a viable alternative to drug treatment.”

The study, a systematic review and meta-analysis that included 218 randomized, controlled trials with 14,170 participants, was published in the BMJ. The researchers were led by Michael Noetel at the University of Queensland, Australia, and included an international team.

The best results were found for more intense exercise. Group exercise also led to better results, as did having a doctor prescribe a specific type of structured exercise—possibly to help overcome the difficulty of sticking with an exercise regimen. People were generally more likely to stick with strength training and yoga.

“Various exercise modalities are effective (walking, jogging, mixed aerobic exercise, strength training, yoga, tai chi, qigong) and well tolerated (especially strength training and yoga). Effects appeared proportional to the intensity of exercise prescribed and were stronger for group exercise and interventions with clear prescriptions,” the researchers write.

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