The benefits of exercise for depression are abundant and they often can be one of the most important steps one can take to improve their mood. Teaching people the benefits of exercise for depression and providing it as an important treatment option is something I stress to all of my patients but recently the media has questioned whether there are truly benefits of exercise for depression. This skepticism about the benefits of exercise for depression came on the heals of a British study on benefits of exercise for depression that apparently called this into question. Please take a look at the linked study and continue reading as I discuss why this study was taken out of context and how there is undoubtedly decades of evidenced in favor of the benefits of exercise for depression.
As a psychiatrist who is adamant about coaching my patients on living a healthy lifestyle which always includes increasing their level of exercise, I am upset that the the media actually has reported this study largely out of context. . This study was a very well designed, peer reviewed, double-blind placebo controlled study which is the gold standard in terms of the quality of any scientific study. However as with most complicated documents, the devil is in the details and looking at the actual study design reveals that it was not a study to assess the benefits of exercise on depression at all; rather it looked at whether providing additional support to people in the form of free consultations and phone access to personal trainers, showed any benefit in terms of their measured level of depression with the assumption that more resources they had may have helped them increased their exercise which was hypothesized to then help depressive symptoms. Clearly this does not exactly prove exercise for depression is useless which is what bothers me as a psychiatrist reading this study which clearly influences patient’s.
Both groups of people in the study had a diagnosis of depression made by a general practitioner (not a psychiatrist which calls into question the accuracy of the diagnoses to begin with which can effect response to treatment if diagnoses are not accurate) and had access to any form of treatment including medications, therapy and were encouraged to exercise. The difference was that one study group was given more resources in terms of personal trainer availability and education about the benefits of exercise for depression whereas the other group did not. This does not mean that one group did not exercise and the other one did. So this study did not isolate the benefits of exercise on depression at all, rather it looked at the question – Does providing more resources to people with depression in terms of access to exercise professionals, increase their overall benefit measured by improvement in depression scores.
So bottom line is that the recent study shows that having more access to personal trainer’s and resources probably does not help people exercise anymore and will not help any further with their depression. This has no bearing on the actual benefits of exercise for depression and simply answers a completely different question. This makes sense as a treating psychiatrist since many of my patients are simply people who never have worked-out in their life and no matter what resources I help them setup in terms of trainers and nutritionists, they simply are not motivated to make life changes. People that are motivated or interested in making healthy lifestyle changes will simply work-out on their own without a need or benefit from providing resources to them in the form of access to personal trainers.
Decades of studies and personal experience of many top psychiatrists, including myself, wholeheartedly believe that the benefits of exercise for depression are abundant and it remains the mainstay of treatment in my practice in addition to healthy eating, getting vitamin D and sun, and participating in good psychotherapy plus/minus medications.