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Comparison between Exercise and Pharmacologic Treatment of Depression

Yael Netz

Mar 17, 2023

Is the Comparison between Exercise and Pharmacologic Treatment of Depression in the Clinical Practice Guideline of the American College of Physicians Evidence-Based?

Major depression disorder is most commonly treated with antidepressants. However, due to their side effects clinicians seek non-pharmacologic options, and one of these is exercise. The literature on the benefits of exercise for depression is extensive. Nevertheless, two recent reviews focusing on antidepressants vs. other therapies as a basis for clinical practice guidelines recommended mainly antidepressants, excluding exercise as a viable choice for treatment of depression. The aim of this perspective is to analyze the literature exploring the reasons for this discrepancy. Two categories of publications were examined: randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and meta-analyses or systematic reviews. Based on this reassessment, RCTs comparing exercise to antidepressants reported that exercise and antidepressants were equally effective. RCTs comparing exercise combined with antidepressants to antidepressants only reported a significant improvement in depression following exercise as an adjunctive treatment. Almost all the reviews examining exercise vs. other treatments of depression, including antidepressants, support the use of exercise in the treatment of depression, at least as an adjunctive therapy. The two reviews examining pharmacologic vs. non-pharmacologic therapies as a basis for clinical practice guidelines examined limited evidence on exercise vs. antidepressants. In addition, it is possible that academics and health care practitioners are skeptical of viewing exercise as medicine. Maybe, there is a reluctance to accept that changes in lifestyle as opposed to pharmacological treatment can alter biological mechanisms. Longitudinal studies are needed for assessing the effectiveness of exercise in real clinical settings, as well as studies exploring dose-response relationship between exercise and depression.

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