Exercise doesn’t help depression. Are you sure?

Photo by ludovic. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

You probably read several stories last week about a study in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) that reportedly claimed exercise no longer helps with managing depression, which many had believed it did. The study was picked up by media outlets (starting with BBC NewsDaily Mail, and Guardian in the UK, then spreading throughout the world) whose shocking headlines indicated that exercising no longer does anything for depression.

A few days later, The Mental Elf (a blog that analyzes and reports on mental health research) released a summary of what the research actually says, separate form the sensationalism of the media.

Here is what he found:

  • At 4 months and at 12 months, the patients who had been encouraged to exercise did not have better mood than the patients who had received usual care
  • Patients who had been encouraged to exercise did not reduce their antidepressant use
  • However, at 4, 9 and 12 months, the patients in the physical activity group did report significantly more physical activity than the usual care patients
  • The study did not assess whether exercise helps to prevent depression
  • It looked at one intervention, but there are many other exercise programmes that have been shown to work well
  • And of course we know that exercise helps prevent obesity, reduce the risk of diabetes and help with cardiovascular fitness; all potential health issues for every man, woman and child who ever got depressed.

The Mental Elf wan’t the only source to question the media coverage of the study. Martin Robbins, also known as The Lay Scientist, reported on the miscommunication in his article in The Guardian.

So rest assured that if running elevates your mood or swimming makes you feel better, you can still do it.