When compared to the antidepressant treatment group, physical exercise as a therapy alternative was equally beneficial in alleviating depressive symptoms in the short term (1 month).
Depression is a common and disabling disorder that affects 1 in every 5 people at some point in their lives and more than 120 million people worldwide. While antidepressant drugs and/or psychological therapy are commonly used to treat depression, other therapeutic options have gained popularity in recent years. Physical activity as a potential treatment option is a rapidly growing area of interest in mood disorder research, as it may be able to be used in place of antidepressant medication.
In a new study published in the journal, The Annals of Family Medicine, researchers wanted to see how effective physical exercise was compared to treatment with antidepressant medicines that are often used in clinical practice in terms of reducing depressive symptomatology in individuals over 65 years old who have clinical criteria for a depressive episode.
Physician-scientist, Dr. Jesús López-Torres Hidalgo, and his team found that the cumulative incidence of improvement in depressive symptomatology in the physical activity (PA) group was not significantly different from that in the antidepressant treatment (AT) group.
However, at the end of 3 and 6 months, the proportion of individuals who improved was substantially higher in the AT group (60.6 percent and 49.7 percent, respectively) than in the PA group (45.6 percent and 32.9 percent). At 3 and 6 months, the AT group had a higher proportion of patients with adverse side effects (8.9 percent vs 22.5 percent). As a result, the number of persons who improved after three and six months was much higher in the antidepressant group than the physical activity group.
The paper’s authors stated, “Antidepressant drugs often give rise to undesirable side effects, especially in the elderly population, with the use of such drugs often being prolonged indefinitely or unnecessarily. It seems reasonable, therefore, to test new therapeutic modalities that might result in fewer adverse side effects and lead to lower health care costs.”
In a primary care environment, the researchers conducted the randomized clinical trial with a total of 347 patients over the age of 65 who had a clinically severe depressive episode. Each participant was randomly assigned to either a supervised physical exercise program or antidepressant medication from their general practitioners.
In conclusion, both AT and PA, when performed in a group setting, can reduce depressive symptomatology in people aged 65 and up who have been diagnosed with mild-to-moderate depression in primary care. Although all treatment methods initially improved depressive symptoms in a similar way, AT was superior in the medium term.
Regardless, physical activity as a treatment option showed to be comparably effective in reducing depression in the short-term (1 month), when compared to the antidepressant treatment group. Despite the fact that the AT group had significantly more negative effects, the participants regarded both therapies to be satisfactory and to have a positive impact on their self-perceived health condition.
The researchers concluded their thoughts by suggesting, “Even if an equivalence of physical exercise to pharmacologic antidepressant treatments is not established, exercise could nonetheless support pharmacologic therapy or be regarded as an alternative treatment in those cases for which pharmacologic therapy has not shown itself to be effective or is contraindicated owing to its many adverse effects and pharmacologic interactions.”
The study was published in The Annals of Family Medicine, on July 1st, 2021.
Hidalgo, Jesús López-Torres, and Joseba Rabanales Sotos. “Effectiveness of Physical Exercise in Older Adults With Mild to Moderate Depression.” The Annals of Family Medicine, vol. 19, no. 4, 2021, pp. 302–309., doi:10.1370/afm.2670.