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Massive Review Identifies Exercises That Could Benefit Mental Health the Most

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A new study has underscored the potential benefits of exercise for people living with depression and anxiety.

The massive review paper, which amassed data from 97 other review studies that included 1,039 different trials and 128,119 participants, suggested that physical activity is associated with improvements in symptoms of distress, anxiety and depression.

The study was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Intensity, duration and improvement

The review encompassed different types of physical activity. It found that higher-intensity physical activity over shorter durations was associated with a greater improvement in symptoms. The most significant benefits associated with exercise were seen across varied groups including:

  • People with depression
  • Healthy individuals
  • People diagnosed with kidney disease or HIV
  • Pregnant women and people with postpartum depression

The research was conducted at the University of South Australia. Lead scientist Dr. Ben Singh said that the findings reiterated the significance of exercise regimes in staving off mood disorders: “Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a 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 exercises such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga,” Singh added.

Senior author Carol Maher, a professor at the University of South Australia highlighted that this study was one of the first to assess how all types of physical activity affected the symptoms of mental health disorders. “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,” Maher concluded.

Reference: Singh B, Olds T, Curtis R, et al. Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews. Br J Sports Med. Published online February 16, 2023. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2022-106195