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Exercise has profound effects on the brain, stimulating the release of neurotransmitters that enhance mood and cognitive functions. Evidence suggests that regular physical activity can promote long-term improvements in mental health, reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety and fostering a sense of well-being. A recent review and meta-analysis found that exercise, especially intense exercise, is comparable to psychotherapy and drug treatments for depression.

Researchers analyzed the findings of 218 studies comparing the effects of exercise versus standard treatments or placebos on depression. The various trials included more than 14,000 participants and incorporated different exercise modalities.

The researchers found that physical activities such as walking, jogging, yoga, strength training, mixed aerobic exercises, and tai chi or qigong moderately reduced depression symptoms compared to standard treatments or placebos. Specifically, walking or jogging markedly reduced depression symptoms, with yoga and strength training also demonstrating notable benefits. Mixed aerobic exercises and tai chi or qigong were also beneficial but to a lesser extent. Notably, exercise intensity was directly linked to the magnitude of depression symptom reduction.

These findings suggest that exercise is comparable to psychotherapy and drug treatments for depression. However, only one of the studies included in the analysis met the highest standards for quality, creating uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of each exercise type. Sauna use, which mimics many of the physiological effects of exercise, improves mood, too. Learn more in this clip featuring Dr. Rhonda Patrick.

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