Exercise for depression

  • Review
  • Intervention




Depression is a common and important cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Depression is commonly treated with antidepressants and/or psychotherapy, but some people may prefer alternative approaches such as exercise. There are a number of theoretical reasons why exercise may improve depression. This is an update of an earlier review first published in 2009.


To determine the effectiveness of exercise in the treatment of depression. Our secondary outcomes included drop-outs from exercise and control groups, costs, quality of life and adverse events.

Search methods

We searched the Cochrane Depression, Anxiety and Neurosis (CCDAN) Review Group's Specialised Register (CCDANCTR), CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE, Sports Discus and PsycINFO for eligible studies (to February 2010). We also searched www.controlled-trials.com in November 2010. The CCDAN Group searched its Specialised Register in June 2011 and potentially eligible trials were listed as 'awaiting assessment'.

Selection criteria

Randomised controlled trials in which exercise was compared to standard treatment, no treatment or a placebo treatment in adults (aged 18 and over) with depression, as defined by trial authors. We excluded trials of postnatal depression.

Data collection and analysis

For this update, two review authors extracted data on outcomes at the end of the trial. We used these data to calculate effect sizes for each trial using Hedges' g method and a standardised mean difference (SMD) for the overall pooled effect, using a random-effects model. Where trials used a number of different tools to assess depression, we included the main outcome measure only in the meta-analysis. We systematically extracted data on adverse effects and two authors performed the 'Risk of bias' assessments.

Main results

Thirty-two trials (1858 participants) fulfilled our inclusion criteria, of which 30 provided data for meta-analyses. Randomisation was adequately concealed in 11 studies, 12 used intention-to-treat analyses and nine used blinded outcome assessors. For the 28 trials (1101 participants) comparing exercise with no treatment or a control intervention, at post-treatment analysis the pooled SMD was -0.67 (95% confidence interval (CI) -0.90 to -0.43), indicating a moderate clinical effect. 

However, when we included only the four trials (326 participants) with adequate allocation concealment, intention-to-treat analysis and blinded outcome assessment, the pooled SMD was -0.31 (95% CI -0.63 to 0.01) indicating a small effect in favour of exercise. There was no difference in drop-outs between exercise and control groups. Pooled data from the seven trials (373 participants) that provided long-term follow-up data also found a small effect in favour of exercise (SMD -0.39, 95% CI -0.69 to -0.09). Of the six trials comparing exercise with cognitive behavioural therapy (152 participants), the effect of exercise was not significantly different from that of cognitive therapy. There were insufficient data to determine risks, costs and quality of life.

Five potentially eligible studies identified by the search of the CCDAN Specialised Register in 2011 are listed as 'awaiting classification' and will be included in the next update of this review.

Authors' conclusions

Exercise seems to improve depressive symptoms in people with a diagnosis of depression when compared with no treatment or control intervention, however since analyses of methodologically robust trials show a much smaller effect in favour of exercise, some caution is required in interpreting these results.








我们检索了Medline、Embase、Sports Discus 、PsycINFO、Cochrane Controlled Trials Register以及 Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews等数据库截至2007年3月的文献。此外,手工检索了相关期刊,并与这一领域的专家联系,还追溯了纳入研究的参考文献。我们还于2008年5月检索了www.controlled-trials.com网站。






28个试验符合纳入标准,其中25个满足Meta-分析的条件。仅有少数研究分配隐藏充分,大多数研究没有使用意向性分析,且多数研究的结局指标为自评症状。23个试验(n=907)比较了运动疗法与空白对照或其他干预对照,合并SMD=−0.82 (95% CI −1.12∼ −0.51),提示运动疗法的临床效果显著。然而,如果仅分析三个分配隐藏充分、使用意向性分析及盲法评估结果的研究,则合并SMD=−0.42 (95% CI −0.88∼ 0.03),也就是说仅有较弱的效果,且无统计学意义。运动疗法与认知疗法的疗效未见差异。本研究没有充分资料进行风险和成本分析。



Plain language summary

Exercise for depression

Depression is a common and disabling illness, affecting approximately 121 million adults worldwide. While depression is commonly treated with antidepressants or psychological therapy, there is increasing interest in the effect of alternative therapies. Exercise has been advocated as a treatment for depression and has been the subject of research for several decades. In our previous Cochrane review, we found that exercise seemed to improve depressive symptoms in people with a diagnosis of depression, but further research was needed. Since then, several new trials have been published. This updated review has identified all available randomised trials which compared exercise with either no treatment or an established treatment (e.g. talking therapy) for people with a diagnosis of depression. We combined data from 30 trials. There were some methodological problems with some of the trials, which limits our confidence in the conclusions drawn. There were 28 trials (1101 participants) that included a comparison of exercise with either waiting list or placebo; overall, we found exercise seemed to improve the symptoms of depression. However, when only the high-quality trials were included, the effect on depression was small. More research is needed to confirm these findings.





本摘要由重庆医科大学中国循证卫生保健协作网(China Effective Health Care Network)翻译。

Translated by: China Effective Health Care Network