Exercise is a viable intervention for improving depression and anxiety in young individuals, study finds

Scientists at the Hunan Normal University, China, have conducted network meta-analysis of available literature to identify the best type of exercise for preventing and treating depression in young individuals.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

Study: Comparing the efficacy of different types of exercise for the treatment and prevention of depression in youths: a systematic review and network meta-analysis. Image Credit: taniascamera/


Depression is the most commonly diagnosed mental disorder characterized by persistent sadness, lack of interest in social activities, and other symptoms that affect daily activities. Youths going through the transition period between adolescence and adulthood are at higher risk of developing depression.

Depression can severely impact youths’ social relationships and academic performance; if left untreated, it can trigger suicidal tendencies. Psychological counseling and psychiatric medicines are the most common interventions for treating depression.

However, about 50% of treated patients experience at least one new depressive episode 6 – 12 months after treatment completion.

Recent evidence suggests that well-regimented physical exercise can effectively improve the severity of mental disorders, including depression. Exercise increases the production of dopamine and serotonin, changes neuroplasticity, and increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels, reducing depressive symptoms.

In this study, scientists conducted a network meta-analysis to evaluate the efficacy of different types of exercises in preventing and treating depression in youths. The main aim was to identify the exercise with the highest benefits.

The effect of exercise on anxiety levels in both depressed and non-depressed youths was also investigated in this study. Moreover, the scientists explored whether certain types of exercises can be combined to maximize therapeutic and preventive effects on depression.

Study design

Scientists searched various scientific databases to identify randomized controlled trials investigating the effects of exercise interventions on depression and anxiety in depressed and non-depressed youths (age range: 15 – 24 years).

An extensive literature search and screening process led to the identification of 58 studies included in the final analysis.

These studies included 4,887 participants from ten distinct countries and investigated the effectiveness of four different types of exercises, including aerobic exercise, resistance exercise, mind-body exercise, and mixed exercise.

Impact of exercise on depression

A total of 41 studies were included in the meta-analysis to investigate the effectiveness of each type of exercise in treating and preventing depression in depressed youths.

The findings revealed that compared to usual care, resistance exercise has the highest efficacy in reducing depression, followed by aerobic exercise, mixed exercise, and mind-body exercise. Standard care was defined as daily care, waitlist control conditions, placebo, or other social activities.  

Impact of exercise on anxiety

Only three studies were included in the meta-analysis to investigate the impact of exercise interventions on anxiety levels in depressed youths.

Despite heterogeneity in findings, a significantly higher effect of exercise over usual care in reducing anxiety was observed. The meta-analysis of 11 studies revealed similar beneficial effects of exercise interventions on anxiety in non-depressed youths. 

Factors influencing exercise effectiveness

Statistical analyses conducted after the network meta-analysis revealed no significant association between exercise effectiveness for depression and study characteristics, including year, age, country, number of participants, and measurement methods.

The findings of sub-group analyses revealed significant effects of frequency, duration, and length of intervention on its effectiveness.

Study significance

The study finds significantly higher effectiveness of exercise interventions over usual care in reducing anxiety and depression in depressed and non-depressed youths. Resistance exercise exhibits the maximum benefits among all exercise types included in the study.

Exercise interventions with a frequency of three–four times per week, a performance duration of 30 – 60 minutes, and a program duration of six weeks provide the highest benefits against depression in youths.

Adolescents and young adults with mild or moderate depression often avoid seeking medical assistance because of treatment-associated stigma, high treatment costs, and side effects of medications.

Thus, including exercise interventions, especially resistance exercise, in physical education curricula of schools might be effective in managing anxiety and depression and improving overall mental wellbeing of youths.      

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