Exercise ‘no help for depression’, research suggests, reads todays BBC headline (despite the cited quote appearing not once in the research paper published today in the BMJ). The Guardian lead with: Exercise doesn’t help depression, study concludes. This comes as shockingly blunt advice after we have been told for years that exercise helps treat depression and a wide range of evidence has come to support this view.
So, what did the study actually find? Two groups of depressed individuals were kept on their standard treatment plan and one of those groups was mildly encouraged to do more exercise through a few short telephone calls and a couple of face to face meetings. There was no minimum amount of exercise required for inclusion in the study, nor were any facilities for exercise provided. Over half of the participants were on anti-depressant medication that may provide some of the benefits of exercise alone, thus negating the benefit of exercise on self reported happiness.
“The aspiration was for the participants to engage in moderate or vigorous activity for 150 minutes a week in bouts of at least 10 minutes, but if that seemed unrealistic then the facilitator encouraged any increase in physical activity, whatever the intensity. The intervention programme comprised an initial hour long face to face assessment session followed by two short telephone contacts, then a further face to face meeting for half an hour. Over the course of 6-8-months, the physical activity facilitator offered up to eight further telephone contacts and one more face to face half hour meeting.”
Chalder, M. Wiles, N. Campbell, J. Hollinghurst, S. Haase, A. Taylor, A. Fox, K. Costelloe, C. Searle, A. Baxter, H. Winder, R. Wright, C. Turner, K., & Calnan, M. Lawlor, D. Peters, T. Sharp, D. Montgomery, A. Lewis, G. (2012). Facilitated physical activity as a treatment for depressed adults: randomised controlled trial. BMJ, 344 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.e2758
At the four month follow up, exactly the same number of people in the treatment group had participated in physical activity as had done so in the control group (though it should be noted that there were seventeen more people in the control group than in the treatment group). Over the course of the study there was only a fifteen percent difference in the amount of exercise between the two groups! This study shows that the current exercise based treatment plan of telling people to exercise is not effective. It does not assess the outcomes of enabling people to exercise, or indeed of actually exercising.
Update: A follow up on this study in Scientific American comes to the same conclusion.
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