With the increasing awareness around mental health and its impact on quality of life, there is a growing discussion around current treatment approaches. A big issue many academics and health professionals are challenging is the over-prescription of medications in mental health illness, with a growing census favouring the role of exercise as an effective and sustainable treatment approach.
The WHO defines health as a "state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." (World Health Organisation, 2012). Effective treatment we may therefore define as the treatments ability to improve overall health outcomes- not just its effect on a subset of symptoms. It can therefore be shown that exercise is a superior choice to medications not just for its effect on mental health but the additional benefits it brings to improve the physical and social aspects.
Mental health: Exercise vs Medications
Comparative studies show exercise treatment is equally as effective at decreasing depressive symptom in mild to moderate cases. Brenes et al., (2007), compared an aerobic and resistance combination exercise program to a selective serotonin uptake inhibitor (SSRI) sertraline over a 16-week period for those with mild depression. Here, both groups showed improvements in depressive symptoms, with no statistically significant differences in groups. What is interesting in this group was that while both groups had equally positive effectives on depressive symptoms, the participants in the exercise condition, reported the additional benefit of reduced physical disability. Conversely participants of the medication conditions reported an increase in physical disability. Therefore, while both conditions improve depressive symptoms, it is clear exercise has a greater effect on overall health with positive improvements to physical function. Blumenthal et al., (2007) and Blumenthal et al., (1999) show very similar findings that lead to many concluding that, from a statistical view there is robust evidence for the use of exercise as an alternative for medication in the treatment of depression and other mental health issues.
Physical and Social - The Secondary Benefits
As previously mentioned, those who were involved in exercise conditions not only benefited mentally, but had the secondary benefit of improved physical ability with reduced blood pressure, enhanced cardiovascular fitness, weight loss and the prevention of chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, osteoporosis and cognitive conditions (Warburton, 2006).
In addition, much of the theory behind why exercise helps depression comes from increased self-efficacy and mastery, which will see an individual more likely maintain adherence to self-set goals (Mikkelsen et al., 2019). The effects of this can help to facilitate increased social interactions, greater engagement in relationships and improved employment outcomes.
What this all means?
These findings suggest that exercise has the potential to be a more effective treatment for some forms of depression compared to medications- not only for the reduction in symptoms, but the secondary benefits of improved physical and social well-being that exercise provides to one's overall health and lifestyle. Challenging the current pharmacological status-quo with the addition of exercise has the potential to not only help bring about greater health outcomes and quality of life, but also provides a resource in such abundance that enables us to help so many more people in need. Speak to an expert to find out how can tap into exercise and find out how it can create a stronger, healthier and happier you.
Blumenthal, J., Babyak, M., Doraiswamy, P., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B., and Barbour, K. et al. (2007). Exercise and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine 69: 587-596.
Blumenthal, J., Babyak, M., Moore, K., Craighead, W., Herman, S., and Khatri, P. et al. (1999). Effects of Exercise Training on Older Patients with Major Depression. Archives of Internal Medicine 159:
Blumenthal, J., Babyak, M., O'Connor, C., Keteyian, S., Landzberg, J., and Howlett, J. et al. (2012). Effects of Exercise Training on Depressive Symptoms in Patients with Chronic Heart Failure. JAMA 308:
Brenes, G., Williamson, J., Messier, S., Rejeski, W., Pahor, M., and Ip, E. et al. (2007). Treatment of minor depression in older adults: A pilot study comparing sertraline and exercise. Aging & Mental Health 11: 61-68.
Cooney, G., Dwan, K., Greig, C., Lawlor, D., Rimer, J., and Waugh, F. et al. (2013). Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, I. (2019). Depression: How effective are antidepressants?
Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., and Apostolopoulos, V. (2019). Exercise and mental health.
Warburton, D. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal 174: 801-809.
World Health Organisation, W. (2012). World Health Organization: Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference.
*Disclaimer: Individual results vary based on agreed goals. Click here for details.