Is Exercise Better Than Medicine For Depression?

Why the evidence doesn’t hold up very well when it comes to exercise and depression

Gideon M-K; Health Nerd


Pictured: Exercise, probably. Photo by Fitsum Admasu on Unsplash

Depression is one of the biggest health issues in society today. It’s hard to know for sure how many people experience depression, but current best estimates put it at about 1 in 10 people experiencing symptoms consistent with major depressive disorder every year, and a scarily high 1 in 5 people experiencing depression at least once in their lifetime.

From personal experience, I can say with some certainty that depression sucks.

Stock photos for depression are, well, a bit depressing, so instead here are some kittens. Photo by The Lucky Neko on Unsplash

On top of that, treatments for depression are notoriously problematic. The most common drugs prescribed to treat the condition, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, have uncomfortable side-effects which cause many people to stop taking them over time. For many people with depression, effective treatment can be a serious struggle.

But according to recent headlines, there’s hope! It seems that scientists have shown that exercise — simple physical workouts — is a more effective treatment for depression than medicines. According to some news stories, exercise is 50% more effective than drugs when it comes to mental health.

Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t show this at all. Exercise is definitely good for you, but most of the evidence looking at exercise for depression is simply not good enough for us to make any useful conclusions.

The Study

The study that has created such a huge hubbub is an umbrella review of systematic reviews into depression and exercise, recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. This sort of study is essentially a review of reviews — each systematic review looks at all the evidence and studies on a specific topic, say exercise for depressive symptoms in people undergoing chemotherapy, and then the umbrella review aggregates all of those systematic reviews into one enormous meta-study. This particular umbrella review looked at a total of 97 review papers covering more than 1,000 randomized trials, which means a…