Using Exercise to Fight Depression in Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

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Abstract

Depression is the most prevalent psychiatric disorder in the general population. Despite a large demand for efficient treatment options, the majority of older depressed adults does not receive adequate treatment: Additional low-threshold treatments are needed for this age group. Over the past two decades, a growing number of randomized controlled trials (RCT) have been conducted, testing the efficacy of physical exercise in the alleviation of depression in older adults. This meta-analysis systematically reviews and evaluates these studies; some subanalyses testing specific effects of different types of exercise and settings are also performed. In order to be included, exercise programs of the RCTs had to fulfill the criteria of exercise according to the American College of Sports Medicine, including a sample mean age of 60 or above and an increased level of depressive symptoms. Eighteen trials with 1,063 participants fulfilled our inclusion criteria. A comparison of the posttreatment depression scores between the exercise and control groups revealed a moderate effect size in favor of the exercise groups (standardized mean difference (SMD) of –0.68, p < .001). The effect was comparable to the results achieved when only the eleven trials with low risk of bias were included (SMD = –0.63, p < .001). The subanalyses showed significant effects for all types of exercise and for supervised interventions. The results of this meta-analysis suggest that physical exercise may serve as a feasible, additional intervention to fight depression in older adults. However, because of small sample sizes of the majority of individual trials and high statistical heterogeneity, results must be interpreted carefully.

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