Exercise relieves depression better than medication

If you’re someone who enjoys physical activity, then what I’m about to tell you may seem like a no-brainer:

Moving your body is good for your mental health.

Regular exercise can lift your mood. The endorphins that are released during moderate exercise, cardio and weight training are like a natural “happiness drug,” one with no side effects.

Still, many people are skeptical. Can a round of cardio really replace my antidepressant?

That’s why it’s good to see a large-scale review that pulls together evidence of just how effective exercise is at alleviating depression and anxiety.

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Large-scale review shows exercise more effective on mental health

Antidepressants and anxiety medications have a long list of side effects…

They don’t always work, they’ve been linked to dementia and they can cause weight gain.

But exercise has nothing but good side effects…

“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment,” says Dr. Ben Singh, lead researcher of the University of South Australia review.

The review is the most comprehensive to date on this subject, encompassing:

  • 97 reviews;
  • 1039 trials;
  • and 128,119 participants!

The findings showed that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counseling or the leading medications for managing depression–and the effects were fast…

The review showed that exercise interventions that were 12 weeks or shorter were the most effective at reducing mental health symptoms, highlighting the speed at which physical activity can make a change.

The largest benefits were seen in people with clinical depression, HIV and kidney disease, in pregnant and postpartum women, and physically healthy individuals.

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It doesn’t take much to start seeing results

Some comments from Dr. Singh about the review’s findings will make them both relevant and easily applicable for most of us.

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

Translation: Short sessions of high-intensity exercise alternated with rest (better known as high-intensity interval training, or HIIT) are better for depression and anxiety than long exercise sessions.

HIIT increases blood flow to the brain, which may have something to do with its positive effects on your mental state. It also helps lower dementia risk.

 But if that seems too strenuous, Dr. Singh has good news…

“We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga.

Translation: you can easily find the exercise that suits you and reap the same benefits.

 “Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health.”

In fact, the review showed that exercise interventions of just twelve weeks or less were the most effective.

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Some exercises give your mental health an extra boost

While a range of physical activities can reap benefits for your mental health, as noted above, one study found that three, in particular, were especially good:

  • Team sports. Exercising with a team improved mental health the most. It reduced the number of lousy mental health days per month by 22.3 percent.
  • Cycling. The simple act of hopping on a bike reduced bad mental health days by 21.6 percent.
  • Aerobic/gym exercise. Heart-pounding, sweaty exercise sessions were effective as well. They led to a 20.1 percent decrease in days each month where you just don’t want to get out of bed.

Here’s another thought: when and where weather permits, take your exercise routine outdoors

In her 2019 book, The Joy of Movement, Stanford University health lecturer Dr. Kelly McGonigal cites a study showing that “green exercise” can reduce depressive symptoms.

“So many people who struggle with anxiety, grief or depression find a kind of relief in being active in nature that they don’t find any other way,” she says.

“It actually alters what’s happening in your brain in a way that looks really similar to meditation,” she says. “People report feeling connected to all of life … and they feel more hopeful about life itself.”

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Exercise more effective than medicines to manage mental health — Eureka Alert

Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews — British Journal of Sports Medicine

Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study — The Lancet Psychiatry

Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.