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Physical activity could reduce the onset of depression

by A. Manolova | 16 November 2021

physical activity, depression, science, prevention, science, sport

Depression is classified as a mental disorder. It is characterised by recurrent episodes of low mood, low self-esteem and a loss of pleasure or interest in activities that are usually felt to be enjoyable. It should not be confused with the usual fluctuations in our mood and emotional responses to everyday challenges. Worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression affects about 280 million people. Depression can lead to serious health problems. Depressed people are more likely to develop other health problems (cardiovascular diseases, metabolic diseases, etc.). In the worst case, depression can lead to death by suicide. More than 700,000 people commit suicide every year, and it is estimated that 60% of these people suffered from depression.

According to WHO, effective treatments exist but more than 75% of people living in low and middle income countries do not have access to them due to lack of financial means or misdiagnosis. Antidepressants are often prescribed, but the results obtained in treating depression are far from optimal, with side effects that can worsen the state of health or cause the treatment to be stopped. Among the recommended methods, physical activity is often prescribed for depressed people with moderate to significant benefits depending on the studies. But could physical activity act as a preventive measure and reduce the risk of developing depression?

The Study

To understand this, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 111 studies involving more than 3 million participants of all ages worldwide. The aim was to see whether physical activity reduces the risk of developing clinical symptoms of depression. All the people who participated in these studies had no signs of depression (or had not previously suffered from depression). Physical activity levels were assessed at least at the beginning of the follow-up, and sometimes several times during the follow-up. Frequency, intensity, volume were assessed. And clinical assessments for depression were performed.

Results & Analyzes

The main results of this meta-analysis show that a lower risk of depression is associated with regular physical activity. This risk is further reduced when the physical activity is of moderate to high intensity (compared to light physical activity) or when it meets official recommendations. Furthermore, participants who increased their level of physical activity during the follow-up also had a lower risk of developing signs of depression. All these results are valid regardless of gender, age, geographical location or duration of follow-up.

Practical Applications

Depression is very difficult to prevent. The warning signs are usually very difficult to detect. The positive association between physical activity and the onset of depressive symptoms can be an effective prevention tool for people at risk. As with many other metabolic and physical characteristics, the intensity of physical activity is a key factor. It is therefore important to aim for regular physical activity, but above all to aim to increase the intensity gradually. Finally, this meta-analysis does not provide any information on the link between the volume of physical activity practised and the risks of depression.


  1. Dishman RK, McDowell CP and Herring MP. Customary physical activity and odds of depression : a systematic review and meta-analysis of 111 prospective cohort studies. Br J Sports Med 55, 926-934, 2021.

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