Is Exercise More Effective than Medication in Managing Mental Health?
Akshay Naik 17 March 2023
Researchers are calling for exercise to be the main approach in managing depression, as a new study from the University of Southern Australia (UniSA), has shown that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or the leading medications. 
Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the review is the most comprehensive to date, encompassing 97 reviews, 1,039 trials and 128,119 participants. It shows that physical activity is extremely beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress. 
The value of physical activity for people with depression and anxiety is widely recognised, but is not considered for managing such conditions as often as the study asserts it should be. All forms of exercise can benefit mental health, the study has found, although higher-intensity activities produce the strongest benefits. 
Researchers found that briefer exercise programmes provide more benefits than extended regimens. The benefits of physical activity interventions diminished with longer-duration programmes. This means that individuals with mental health issues need not commit to intensive, long-term exercise to achieve the maximum therapeutic benefit.
A review of the study’s findings showed that the 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. Among the participants, those with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals and people diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease saw the largest benefits. 
Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) has shown that one in every eight people worldwide (970mn—million—people) live with a mental disorder. Furthermore, poor mental health has been estimated to cost the world economy approximately US$2.5trn (trillion) each year, and has been projected to rise to US$6trn by 2030. 
Dr Ben Singh, lead researcher from UniSA, says: “Physical activity must be prioritised to better manage the growing cases of mental health conditions. It is known to help improve mental health. Yet, despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as first-choice treatment.”
“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. Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts. We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates and yoga,” he further explained. 
Senior researcher and UniSA’s Prof Carol Maher said that the study was the first to evaluate the effects of all types of physical activity on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in all adult populations. Researchers of the study are confident of their finding—that it does not take much exercise to make a positive change to your mental health. 
Prof Maher said: “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. We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety.”
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