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Step, Lift, Dance: New Study Shows Exercise, Especially Dancing, is as Effective as Therapy and Medications for Depression

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedMarch 22, 2024

New Study Reveals the Optimal Exercise Dose and Modalities for Treating Depression

A Comprehensive Analysis Weighs Exercise Against Traditional Treatments

In a groundbreaking analysis that could revolutionize the treatment of depression, researchers have systematically reviewed available data to determine the most effective forms of exercise for treating major depressive disorder. This extensive study, published in February 2024 in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), suggests that certain types of exercise could stand alongside psychotherapy and antidepressants as core treatments for depression.

The Significance of Exercise in Depression Management

Depression remains a leading cause of disability worldwide, strongly affecting quality of life and exacerbating comorbidities like heart disease and cancer. However, even with prevalent drug treatments and psychotherapy approaches, many patients either do not respond to traditional interventions or have limited access to them. Simple, accessible alternatives or complements to these treatments are needed. Exercise, known for its various health benefits, presents such an alternative.

Study Overview: Comparing Exercise to Established Treatments

The study aimed to discern the "optimal dose" and type—or modality—of exercise for treating depression, comparing it with psychotherapy, antidepressant medications, and control conditions like usual care or placebo. The researchers embarked on a sophisticated method known as a network meta-analysis, which allowed them to compare the effectiveness of various forms of exercise simultaneously.

Critical Findings: Best Exercises for Depression

The synthesis of the data indicated that walking or jogging, yoga, strength training, mixed aerobic exercises, and tai chi or qigong emerged as effective methods for reducing depression symptoms. Among these modalities, walking or jogging, yoga, and strength training appeared most effective, especially when performed with higher intensity. Interestingly, group exercises and interventions with clear prescriptions were seen to be more beneficial.

Effectiveness and Acceptability: What Works Best?

Strength training and yoga were not only effective but also well-tolerated, indicating higher levels of acceptance among participants. The analysis found that the effectiveness of exercise for depression was largely proportional to the intensity prescribed. Overall, the study suggests that exercise is as effective for individuals with comorbidities and different baseline depression levels as it is for those without.

Confidence in the Results

Among the 218 unique studies included in the analysis, only one study met the criteria for a low risk of bias—an important consideration when weighing the certainty of the findings. While results appeared robust against potential publication bias, the confidence in the findings for walking or jogging was rated low, and even lower for other forms of exercise.

Recommendations and Future Prospects

Taking these results into account, the study recommends considering exercise—particularly walking or jogging, yoga, and strength training alongside other well-established treatments for depression. Additionally, researchers advise that future studies aim to blind participants and staff to expectancy effects to further refine the results and recommendations.

Practical Implications: Accessible Mental Health Support

With such findings, exercise can be strategically integrated into treatment plans for major depressive disorder, potentially improving access to therapeutic interventions worldwide. Especially in regions where traditional treatments are less available, exercise stands as a feasible and cost-effective method to support mental health and well-being.

Conclusion: Embracing Movement in Mental Health Care

This systematic review and network meta-analysis shed light on the influential role of exercise as a valuable treatment for depression. The data points to sustained movement—be it through walking, yoga, or other measured activities—as a significant ally in the battle against this pervasive and debilitating condition. For individuals seeking to combat depression, incorporating specific exercise regimes may offer a powerful therapeutic avenue, offering new hope and possibilities for effective management of their mental health.

For more information on the study or how exercise may benefit you if you're dealing with depression, consult your healthcare provider or check out the detailed findings published in the BMJ.


Noetel M, Sanders T, Gallardo-Gómez D, Taylor P, del Pozo Cruz B, van den Hoek D et al. Effect of exercise for depression: systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials BMJ 2024; 384 :e075847 doi:10.1136/bmj-2023-075847