Strength training has a moderate antidepressant effect

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A recent study published in Psychiatry Research provides evidence in favor of strength training as a potential complementary strategy to combat depression. This research, a meta-analysis of 38 previous studies, shows that strength training can moderately reduce symptoms of depression. The analysis also highlights how the duration of the intervention, the weekly frequency and details such as the number of sets and repetitions can influence this antidepressant effect.

Depression, an illness that affected approximately 280 million people worldwide in 2019, is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. Despite the widespread use of medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and psychotherapy, a significant proportion of those affected do not fully recover, highlighting the critical need for complementary treatment strategies.

Among these, exercise, including strength training, has shown promise in reducing depressive symptoms. However, previous research has not fully explored how different aspects of strength training contribute to its antidepressant effects. This lack of knowledge led the researchers to conduct a detailed analysis, with the aim of refining exercise prescriptions for people with depression.

Lead author Lucas Melo Neves explained that his doctoral research had focused on the intersection of exercise and brain health. In 2020, he embarked on a postdoctoral journey at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of São Paulo, where he sought to delve deeper into the nuances of how exercise influences mental health.

For their meta-analysis, the researcher conducted a comprehensive search of several online databases, aiming to capture experimental studies investigating the relationship between strength training and depression outcomes. Study selection criteria were carefully defined to focus on an adult population diagnosed with major depression or with subthreshold depressive symptoms, explicitly excluding those with other serious illnesses. This approach sought to isolate the effects of strength training on depressive symptoms.

Initially, more than two thousand articles were identified, but through a process of elimination based on titles, abstracts and full-text assessments, the final analysis included 38 studies. These studies included a diverse sample of 2439 participants.

The meta-analysis showed a moderate and significant improvement in depressive symptoms among participants who participated in strength training compared to those in non-active control groups. The researchers also found that the duration of the intervention, the weekly frequency of the training sessions, and the specific parameters of the training sessions (such as the number of sets and repetitions) played an important role in the magnitude of the antidepressant effects .

Specifically, longer intervention durations, higher weekly frequencies, and greater numbers of sets and repetitions were associated with stronger antidepressant outcomes. This detail is crucial for both practitioners and individuals, suggesting that not just any strength training regimen will do; the specific design of the program significantly affects its effectiveness in alleviating depressive symptoms.

“The way you perform the strength exercise is important,” Neves told PsyPost. “In other words, some features of a strength training program may potentially have an antidepressant effect. Thus, strength training three or more times per week produces more antidepressant effects than training once or twice, and training strength training with three or more sets of exercise produces more antidepressant effects compared to one or two sets.”

Interestingly, the researchers also explored the differences in the antidepressant effects of strength training in isolation versus strength training combined with other forms of exercise, such as aerobic training. Although strength training alone showed a moderate and significant effect, combining strength training with other exercises did not significantly alter the outcome.

Although the study provides compelling evidence supporting the antidepressant benefits of strength training, the authors acknowledge certain limitations. For example, the analysis did not take into account potential variables that could also influence the results.

“In our study, there was no comparison according to medication use, diet and adherence, and some studies did not provide details about their training protocol,” Neves explained. “Furthermore, only two studies examined the effect of strength training plus aerobic training, which could affect potential differences from control.”

The study, “Strength training has antidepressant effects in people with depression or depressive symptoms, but without other serious illnesses: a systematic review with meta-analysis,” was authored by Fabricio Eduardo Rossi, Gustavo Gusmo dos Santos, Priscila Almeida Queiroz Rossi, Brendon Stubbs. , Felipe Barreto Schuch and Lucas Melo Neves.

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