Hospital del Mar Research Institute Hospital del Mar Research Institute


05/04/2024 - Press release

Exercise programs can improve depressive symptoms

  • Their application must be individualized and monitored by specialists in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, as well as in mental health
  • The reviewed studies agree on the benefits of physical exercise in returning to pre-depression functionality, improving depressive symptoms, and enhancing the quality of life of patients
  • This is indicated by the first systematic review of the scientific literature on depressive symptoms and functionality, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders

Engaging in physical exercise can help individuals with depressive symptoms improve their condition, but to maximize its benefits, it needs to be conducted within an established and individualized program, under the supervision of experts to ensure it is performed correctly. This is the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, led by members of the Institute of Mental Health and the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Hospital del Mar.

From left to right, Francesc Colom, Aitana Garcia-Estela, Esther Duarte

The work has reviewed the scientific literature in this field, selecting 15 studies, which included more than 2,000 participants. A common denominator among them is the effect of physical exercise on individuals presenting depressive symptoms, whether as a primary diagnosis or in the context of another disease. Of these, 70% were women, with an age range from 30 to 81 years.

Dr. Francesc Colom, a clinical psychologist at Hospital del Mar and coordinator of the Mental Health Research Group at its research center, notes that the studies analyzed affirm that "the personalized prescription, taking into account each person's capabilities and limitations, of physical exercise, has a direct impact on the functioning of individuals presenting depressive symptoms in the context of any disease". In fact, a vast majority of the study participants experienced a significant impact on their functioning.

The most effective physical exercise programs have a duration of between 8 and 12 weeks, with three hours of work per week, aligning with the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) in this regard. The positive effects are evident both in returning to pre-depression functionality and in the improvement of depressive symptoms themselves, and in the quality of life of the patients.

Participants in the IDEA program

The results lead the researcher from the Hospital del Mar Research Institute and the first author of the study, Aitana García-Estela, to point out that "the impact of physical exercise is mediated by the way the selected program is conducted, the generic recommendation, such as walking every day, does not have the same effect, whereas directed training maximizes it". This involves an initial assessment by a specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and follow-up with a team consisting of a psychologist and a physiotherapist and its application in groups.

"Even the smallest exercise can benefit mental health" explains Dr. Esther Duarte, head of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Hospital del Mar and a researcher at its research center. "Considering the evidence, personalized exercise recommendations should be considered a standard clinical practice" she asserts.

Application at Hospital del Mar

Hospital del Mar is conducting its own study on the effects of physical exercise on mental health. This is the IDEA program (Impact of Physical Exercise and Activation on Depression), in which more than a hundred people are participating. In fact, previous studies have demonstrated the positive influence of physical activity on mood, by increasing levels of endogenous opioids, enkephalins, and neural network plasticity, among other benefits.

Depression is estimated to have a prevalence of 6.4% of the population, with almost 300 million people diagnosed worldwide. It is one of the mental disorders that most affects patients' quality of life, and even in mild cases, they are linked to a marked loss of well-being, functionality, and quality of life. This is without forgetting the most serious complication of the disease, the risk of death associated with suicidal behavior.

The work has had the participation of researchers from CIBER of Mental Health (CIBERSAM).

Reference Article

García-Estela A, Angarita-Osorio N, Holzhausen MC, Mora-Salgueiro J, Pérez V, Duarte E, Faulkner G, Colom F. Evaluating the effect of exercise-based interventions on functioning in people with transdiagnostic depressive symptoms: A systematic review of randomised controlled trials. J Affect Disord. 2024 Jan 24;351:231-242. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2024.01.191. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 38278328.

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