The following information is summarized from the Cochrane Collaboration review of evaluations of programs using exercise as a treatment for depression. (You may find the results a bit depressing.)
This review of evaluations which met the criteria to be included (high-quality trials using randomized processes for inclusion and control) sought to determine if exercise helps to reduce the symptoms of depression. If so, was it more effective than other treatments such as antidepressant medication, or non-medical treatments or therapies such as psychological therapies? Finally, were patients accepting of exercise and did they participate fully?
Which studies were included in the review?
We used search databases to find all high-quality randomized controlled trials of how effective exercise is for treating depression in adults over 18 years of age. We searched for studies published up until March 2013. We also searched for ongoing studies to March 2013. All studies had to include adults with a diagnosis of depression, and the physical activity carried out had to fit criteria to ensure that it met with a definition of ‘exercise.’
We included 39 studies with a total of 2326 participants in the review.
The reviewers noted that the quality of some of the studies was low, which limits confidence in the findings.
What does the evidence from the review tell us?
Exercise is moderately more effective than no therapy for reducing symptoms of depression. Exercise is no more effective than antidepressants for reducing symptoms of depression, although this conclusion is based on a small number of studies. Exercise is no more effective than psychological therapies for reducing symptoms of depression, although this conclusion is based on a small number of studies. The reviewers also note that when only high-quality studies were included, the difference between exercise and no therapy is less conclusive. Attendance rates for exercise treatments ranged from 50 per cent to 100 per cent. The evidence about whether exercise for depression improves quality of life is inconclusive.
What should happen next?
The review leaves the questions about exercise as a treatment for depression still open. The reviewers recommend more studies, especially high-quality evaluations.