For the treatment of depression in adults, exercise is as effective as medications or therapy, but not more so, according to a research review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2013; 9; doi: 10.1002/ 14651858.CD004366.pub6).
Scientists from five universities in the United Kingdom reviewed 39 studies with a total of 2,326 participants in order to update a 2010 review. The earlier review had suggested exercise could reduce depression symptoms, but had found the effect was small and seemed to end if participants stopped exercising.
The current review concluded that exercise is moderately more effective than no treatment but no more effective than antidepressant medications or psychological therapies. The reviewers noted, however, that their conclusions were based on a small number of studies. More research is needed to study larger numbers of participants; look in more detail at what types of exercise most benefit people with depression; and identify the “dose” (duration and number of sessions) that provides most benefits.