Exercise Can Help With Depression and Anxiety Even More Than Therapy or Medication, Study Finds

The largest, most comprehensive review on the topic yet reveals more powerful benefits of physical activity for mental health.

Movement really is medicine. Both scientific research and anecdotal evidence have shown, time and again, how helpful physical activity can be for mental health, whether as a coping strategy or remedy for those already struggling with mental health symptoms, or as a preventive habit for maintaining mental well-being. Being active and getting regular exercise can help boost mood, energy, and cognitive health, too, helping to decrease the risk of developing mental health struggles in the future.

<p>Tony Anderson/Getty Images</p>

Tony Anderson/Getty Images

Exercise can help keep mental health conditions at bay.

In a 2022 systematic review, researchers analyzed 15 prospective studies on the relationship between exercise and depression risk and found that adults who engaged in 4.4 hours of exercise per week had an 18-percent lower risk of depression compared to sedentary adults. Meanwhile, adults who did double that amount of exercise—8.8 hours per week—had an impressive 25-percent lower risk of depression compared to sedentary adults.

Related:Research Says a Healthy Combo of Meditation and Exercise Can Naturally Reduce Depression

Exercise can help treat current mental health symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and distress.

As both the prevalence and awareness of mental health issues continue to increase, so too does the need for more accessible, effective, evidence-based interventions for managing symptoms and finding relief. And a recent comprehensive review by researchers at the University of South Australia, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, is even more proof of the power of physical activity for managing depression, anxiety, and stress.

One of the most comprehensive reviews on this subject, researchers analyzed 97 systematic reviews with meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials," comprising a total of 1,039 trials and 128,119 participants, the study abstract reports.

The study not only confirmed that regular physical activity is beneficial for preventing and managing mental health, but it also found that exercise is actually 1.5 times more effective for treating symptoms of depression and anxiety than commonly prescribed (and expensive) mental health interventions like therapy and medications. (Groups who experienced the most benefits were those with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals, and people with HIV and kidney disease.)

“Examining these studies as a whole is an effective way for clinicians to easily understand the body of evidence that supports physical activity in managing mental health disorders,” said Carol Maher, professor of population and digital Health at UniSA, in a press release for the study. “We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety.”

Related:3 Low-Impact Types of Exercise That Relieve Stress While Building Strength

It only takes about three months of regular exercise to feel changes.

And according to the study, it doesn’t take that long—or that much exercise—to experience the mind and mood benefits. According to the press release, “exercise interventions that were 12 weeks or shorter were the most effective at reducing mental health symptoms,” which proves just how quickly a consistent movement routine can have an impact.

All types of exercise count.

“We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga,” said Ben Singh, PhD, research fellow and lead study author at the University of South Australia.

Interestingly, he adds, “higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts.”

Some great ways to get a quick burst of higher-intensity exercise include climbing the stairs, jumping rope, dancing, holding a plank, or doing a few squats, burpees, or jumping jacks.

Related:5 Types of Exercise That Boost Brain Health

Exercise should be a top-priority, non-invasive strategy for managing mental health symptoms.

After discovering just how effective exercise really is for treating and/or managing mental health condition symptoms, research fellow and lead study author at the University of South Australia, Ben Singh, PhD, emphasizes the importance of making exercise a top-priority, first-choice option for dealing with mental health conditions.

“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment,” Singh said. “Our review shows that physical activity interventions can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement.”

When it comes to keeping your mind and mood on an even keel—or lifting yourself up out of a deeper depression—the positive impact of moving your body regularly cannot be overstated. Of course, it can be extremely hard to motivate yourself when you're at your bluest (the ultimate catch-22 situation, unfortunately), but just remembering that you have exercise—walking, stretching, dancing, gardening, swimming, rock-climbing—as an effective tool in your back pocket at all times can be a powerful thing. And remember, too, that exercise doesn't always need to be a formal, drawn-out thing: Engaging in mini moments of exercise throughout the day (even three to five minutes here and there) is enough to start impacting your health—mental health included.

Related:Set Your Alarm One Hour Earlier to Reduce Your Risk of Depression, Sleep Study Suggests

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