Is Exercise Actually the Most Effective Antidepressant?

The answer appears to be yes, according to the latest research

A man biking past flowers.
A regular exercise routine is dynamite for addressing depressive symptoms.
VCG via Getty Images

Antidepressant prescriptions have increased by 35% over the last six years.

On one hand, it’s encouraging to see so many Americans taking a proactive approach to their mental health. SSRIs do appear to tinker with so-called “chemical imbalances,” improving neurotransmitter function for serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.

Still, somewhere over the last 15 years, we may have started to give the pills a little too much credit. Here’s some not-so-great data on antidepressants:

  • Only 60% of patients respond positively to antidepressants.
  • Antidepressants can help people improve 9.6 points on a depression scale, but a placebo can help them improve 7.8 points.
  • People with depression actually don’t have less serotonin than people without depression.

That’s not to say SSRIs don’t work, only that, according to some data, they’re about 25% more effective than a Skittle. (Not to mention, they can induce long-term side effects like weight gain or sexual dysfunction.)

Looking to bridge this treatment gap, researchers have started looking into other options for relief. And somewhat surprisingly, exercise has emerged as a capable alternative.

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In two recent studies (one published here, the other here), physical activity was proven 1.5 times more effective than either therapy or “leading medications” in treating depression.

The first report encompassed 97 reviews, including 128,119 participants, and found that “exercise interventions of 12 weeks or shorter were the most effective at reducing mental health symptoms,” suggesting that patients can get a handle on their anxiety, distress or depression in a matter of months. And the second report succinctly concluded: “Results show moderate to large effects of exercise on depressive symptoms…[physical activity] should be offered as an evidence-based treatment option.”

For years now, wellness leaders have been beating the drum that exercise is essential for feeling a certain way, instead of looking a certain way (the conventional, flawed wisdom). But now physical activity has a legitimate prescriptive tilt, too.

The authors of these studies arrived at two heartening conclusions:

  1. All types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial at limiting depressive symptoms, from walking to strength training to yoga.
  2. It doesn’t take that much exercise (or that much time) to make a positive change to your mental health.

Expect to hear a lot more about “exercise interventions” and “exercise prescriptions” in the near future, as physicians, clinical therapists and personal trainers work to de-silo their areas of expertise, and offer patients comprehensive get-better blueprints. This isn’t the end of antidepressants. They still do a lot for a lot of people. However, it may be a wake-up call that they’re no panacea, and new priorities and routines — as simple as taking a 30-minute walk each day — could be a missing link.

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