Is exercise really the most effective antidepressant?

The answer seems to be yes, according to the latest research.

A man riding a bicycle in front of flowers.

A regular exercise routine is dynamite for treating depressive symptoms.

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

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

Yet somewhere in the last 15 years, we may have started giving pills a little too much credit. Here is some not-so-good 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 don’t actually have less serotonin than people without depression.

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

Seeking to fill this treatment gap, researchers began looking for other relief options. And somewhat surprisingly, exercise has become an effective alternative.

In two recent studies (one published here, the other here), physical activity was found to be 1.5 times more effective than therapy or “main drugs” in treating depression.

The first report encompassed 97 reviews, including 128,119 participants, and found that “exercise interventions of 12 weeks or less were most effective in reducing mental health symptoms”, suggesting that patients can control their anxiety, distress or depression. 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, wellness leaders have been saying that exercise is key to feeling a certain way, instead of looking at in a way (conventional and imperfect wisdom). But now, physical activity also has a legitimate prescriptive slant.

The authors of these studies came to two encouraging conclusions:

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

Expect to hear a lot more talk about “exercise interventions” and “exercise prescriptions” in the near future, as doctors, clinical therapists and personal trainers work to break down the silos of their areas of expertise. and to offer patients comprehensive plans for improvement. This is not the end of antidepressants. They still do a lot for a lot of people. However, this may be a red flag that they are not the panacea, and new priorities and routines – as simple as walking 30 minutes each day – could be a missing link.

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