What is the potential role of exercise in preventing depression?

Wednesday, April 27, 2022 - 4:30pm

Working in psychiatry and behavioral medicine, we know that depression worsens overall health and is associated with hastened mortality – both all-cause and due to suicide. 

For many patients with depression, exercise can be a potent treatment for depression, either alone or as combination therapy. As healers, part of our mission is to not only treat but to prevent mental illness. So, what is the potential role of exercise in preventing depression?

In the research article Association Between Physical Activity and Risk of Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, published this month in JAMA Psychiatry, the authors share the results of 15 studies that included close to 200,000 subjects. The stated aim was “to investigate the dose-response association between physical activity and depression.”  The authors also assessed “potential population changes in depression that may be preventable by higher physical activity levels.”
The investigators observed that even relatively small doses of physical activity (even at levels of physical activity below public health recommendations) were associated with substantially lower risks of depression. The authors conclude that “Health practitioners should therefore encourage any increase in physical activity to improve mental health.”
The key here is any increase in physical activity. It isn’t uncommon to have depressed patients express ambivalence or resistance when receiving a recommendation for increased physical activity. For some patients with depression, getting out of bed can be hard enough, let alone committing to 30 minutes of aerobic activity or resistance training per day. For our patients who are not currently depressed, we can implement the results of this research in our care by encouraging even low levels of physical activity to prevent depression.