Mixed Findings on Physical Activity and Depression

By Rick Naurert PhD
November 23rd, 2022
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.

Mixed Findings on Physical Activity and DepressionClinical guidelines currently recommend physical activity to help reduce symptoms of depression. However, a new study contrasts with earlier findings suggesting that increasing physical activity does not reduce symptoms of depression more than usual care alone.

Nevertheless, researchers did find that the intervention was successfully for increasing levels of physical activity resulting in caloric control and the physical benefits associated with exercise.

Depression is one of the most common reasons for seeking medical help. Statistics suggest depression affects from one in six adults at any one time.

Until now, most of the evidence for the positive effect of physical activity in treating depression has originated from studies of small, non-clinical samples. Researchers believed a study involving a broader population, as managed by the UK’s National Health Service, was called for.

The TREAD study, led by researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Exeter and the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, is the first large-scale, randomized controlled trial to establish whether a physical activity intervention should be used in primary health care to help treat adults with depression.

Researchers recruited 361 patients aged 18-69 years who had recently been diagnosed with depression. Trial participants were then split into two groups to receive either the physical activity intervention in addition to usual care or usual care on its own and were followed up for 12 months to assess any change in their symptoms.

Melanie Chalder, from University of Bristol’s School of Social and Community Medicine, said: “Numerous studies have reported the positive effects of physical activity for people suffering with depression but our intervention was not an effective strategy for reducing symptoms.

“However, it is important to note that increased physical activity is beneficial for people with other medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease and, of course, these conditions can affect people with depression.”

John Campbell,  M.D., of  the University of Exeter, commented: “Many patients suffering from depression would prefer not to have to take traditional antidepressant medication, preferring instead to consider alternative non-drug based forms of therapy.

“Exercise and activity were considered as a non-pharmacological answer to depression, however, according to the researchers, this study suggests that exercise does not appear to be effective in treating depression.”

An important finding, Campbell said,  is that the research did result in a sustained increase in activity in people who were working with activity facilitators. Although their increased activity did not result in improved depression, the approach offers potential in areas other than depression, he said.

Adrian Taylor, Ph.D., at the University of Exeter, added: “We were pleased that people responded to the tailored physical activity intervention, which focused on increasing sustainable moderate intensity physical activity.

“However, reducing depression more than is possible through usual care is clearly a huge challenge.”

The study is published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Source: The Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry

Man exercising photo by shutterstock.

Dr. Rick Naurert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Naurert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.