Scientists have long known that exercise can help reduce depression and anxiety, but a recent extensive meta-analysis of 97 studies has shed light on just how much it can actually help.
The analysis included thousands of participants diagnosed with depression and anxiety, comparing them to a control group without these conditions. The findings showed that physical activity significantly improved symptoms of depression and anxiety.
While it is important to note that professional counseling and medication may still be necessary for severe cases of depression and anxiety, exercise can serve as a powerful adjunct treatment.
The meta-analysis, published in BJSM, examined various aspects of exercise’s impact on depression and anxiety. Data from approximately 128,000 people who participated in different exercises were combined to analyze the changes in symptoms.
Depression is characterized by a range of emotional and physical symptoms, such as persistent low mood, loss of pleasure, feelings of guilt, disrupted sleep and appetite, and decreased concentration. The review found that physical activity was generally effective in reducing depressive symptoms, with a small to moderate effect size of 0.43. When looking specifically at clinical depression and postpartum depression, the effect size increased to 0.63. Even in the general population without a diagnosed pathology, physical activity still showed a moderate reduction in depressive symptoms, with an effect size of 0.62.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is characterized by fear, restlessness, and physical sensations such as a rapid pulse, rapid breathing, sweating, and weakness. The meta-analysis revealed that physical activity was effective in reducing anxiety symptoms, with a small to medium effect size of 0.42. However, the effectiveness varied depending on the type of anxiety. For instance, cancer patients showed a smaller reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to the general population, which demonstrated a large and significant effect (effect size of 0.85).
When it comes to specific types of exercise, strength training (weights) was found to be the most effective for reducing depression, with a moderate effect size of 0.64. Combining strength and aerobic activities produced a smaller effect size of 0.47, while aerobic activity alone had a small to medium effect size of 0.45. For anxiety, strength training showed a small effect size of 0.35, while yoga, stretching, and mind-body activities had a small effect size of 0.42. Aerobic activity had a small average effect size of 0.29.
It is important to note that while different types of physical activity have varying levels of effectiveness, the key is to find an activity that you enjoy and will commit to. The review emphasized that any form of physical activity can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Moreover, the review suggests that high-intensity activity has the greatest impact, although the exact definition of “high-intensity” was not clearly defined.
Interestingly, the review also found that the most significant improvement in symptoms occurred within the first few weeks of engaging in physical activity. Studies that implemented physical activity for less than 12 weeks showed a large and significant effect with an average effect size of 0.84. The effect somewhat diminished after 12 weeks, with an effect size of 0.46, and further decreased after 24 weeks to an effect size of 0.28.
In terms of frequency, exercising 4-5 times a week yielded a greater effect in reducing symptoms compared to exercising less than 4 times a week. This finding was consistent for both depression and anxiety. However, it is worth noting that only one review measured this specific data for anxiety.
The review suggests that a high dose of physical activity, around 4-5 times a week at a high intensity, for 12 weeks can lead to the best improvement in symptoms of anxiety and depression. It is important to remember that even small steps toward physical activity can have a positive impact on mental health. Every movement counts, so start with what is feasible and gradually increase intensity and duration.
1. Start with an easy and pleasant walk:
Try to start with a 20-minute walk down the street, even wandering through the mall is a walk to everything. Try to do it every day at the same time. After a while, make it a bit longer.
2. Add steps to the daily routine:
Don’t look for the nearest parking spot to your home or work, try to walk a bit.
Use the stairs more. Try to go up and down on foot even if it is just one floor.
Take longer walks with the dog.
When working in an office, look for opportunities to move around. Try to walk for 5 minutes every hour or even do some squats instead.
When you talk on the phone, walk around.
Use a pedometer. Today, there is one available on every smartphone. Try to add 1,000-2,000 steps to the total number of steps you usually take (you can check this in the app on your smartphone)
3. Try some light and fun physical activity
Think about a form of light physical activity that you liked in the past and try to go back to it. It could be folk dancing, basketball, running, or something else.
4. Use smartphone apps to help keep you moving
Download apps that measure physical activity and remind yourself that it’s time to move.
5. Sign up for a gym or get a trainer
6. Sign up for classes
Try to take up something like yoga, pilates, or crossfit.
For people struggling with depression and anxiety, the lack of strength and motivation to engage in physical activity can be a major obstacle. Breaking the cycle of anxiety can be challenging, but you don’t need to face it alone. Friends, family, and professional health can go a long way.