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Is Exercise More Effective Than Medication For Depression And Anxiety?

While medication and therapy are often used to treat anxiety and depression, Affinity Health, a leading provider of high-quality healthcare, highlights growing evidence to suggest that exercise may also be an effective treatment option.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting more than 264 million people. Anxiety disorders are also common, affecting an estimated 284 million people globally.

“While depression and anxiety are distinct conditions with unique symptoms, they often occur together and share many common underlying factors,” says Murray Hewlett. 

“Research has shown that genetics, life experiences, and brain chemistry can all contribute to the development of these disorders.”

Signs And Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety

Depression is a mood disorder characterised by persistent sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable. 

Symptoms of depression may include:

  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
Anxiety is a condition characterised by excessive worry, fear, or nervousness.

Symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Excessive worry or fear
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating or sleeping
  • Muscle tension or headaches
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Panic attacks
  • Avoidance of certain situations or activities

The Evidence for Exercise as a Treatment for Depression and Anxiety

Research has consistently shown that exercise can positively impact mental health. A growing body of evidence suggests that exercise may be as effective as medication for treating depression and anxiety.

“One meta-analysis published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that exercise was as effective as medication for treating depression in adults. The study analysed the results of 11 clinical trials involving 455 patients with major depressive disorder. The researchers found that exercise was just as effective as medication in reducing symptoms of depression,” adds Hewlett.

“Another study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that exercise was an effective treatment for anxiety in college students. The study involved 60 college students randomly assigned to either a control or exercise group. The group participated thrice weekly in a 30-minute aerobic exercise session for eight weeks. The researchers found that the exercise group experienced significantly reduced anxiety symptoms compared to the control group.”

Hewlett continues to say a review of 25 studies published in the journal Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice found that exercise was an effective treatment for depression in older adults.

The review included studies of various types of exercise, including aerobic exercise, resistance training, and tai chi. The researchers found that exercise was effective in reducing symptoms of depression in older adults, regardless of the type of exercise.

Why Exercise May Be Effective

There are several reasons why exercise may be an effective treatment for depression and anxiety. First, exercise has been shown to increase levels of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which affect mood regulation. 

Exercise has also been shown to reduce inflammation, which is thought to contribute to depression.

In addition to these physiological effects, exercise can also have psychological benefits. Exercise has increased self-esteem, improved mood, and reduced stress and anxiety.

Is Exercise More Effective Than Medication?

While exercise is an effective treatment for depression and anxiety, it is not necessarily more effective than medication. The effectiveness of exercise versus medication may depend on the individual and the severity of their symptoms.

For some people, medication may be a necessary component of treatment for depression or anxiety. For others, exercise may be an effective alternative or complementary treatment for depression and anxiety.

“While exercise may not be the best option for everyone, it can be a valuable tool for managing symptoms and improving mental health. Suppose you are struggling with depression or anxiety. In that case, it is important to speak with a healthcare provider or mental health professional to determine the best treatment for your needs, ” says Hewlett.

About Affinity Health

Affinity Health is South Africa’s leading health insurance provider, offering you a range of options at affordable rates, including access to the widest national provider network. We understand the importance of medical insurance that meets your needs, budget, and lifestyle. Our healthcare products are designed to protect you and your family when it matters the most. We strive to give our clients peace of mind and the highest standard of service. For more information, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


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