As I wolfed down my breakfast this morning, I spotted this Guardian headline in my twitter feed “Exercise doesn’t help depression, study concludes“. It linked to a Press Association (so not even filtered through the brain and typing fingers of a science journalist) article reporting the findings of the somewhat less snappier titled “Facilitated physical activity as a treatment for depressed adults: randomised controlled trial“. ‘Aye aye’ I thought, ‘that seems a bit dodgy’, and so it seems did the rest of twitter.
My critical appraisal skills are a bit rusty, but even a quick skim through the article suggested that the media reporting of it was a bit bobbins. The study investigated whether telephone and face to face contacts could help maintain or improve people’s participation in 150 minutes (or just more than they did normally) of moderate to vigorous exercise per week, rather than just being advised to do so. This was the intervention in the title, not actually exercise itself. So the headlines probably should have read something like “Intervention designed to encourage people to exercise doesn’t help depression, study concludes”. The intervention actually provided up to 3 face to face sessions and 10 telephone contacts over 6-8 months – as any hardened Athoner will testify, this is actually a damn sight less than you get when JogBlog thinks that you’re slacking (or indeed less than you get from twitter whenever you tweet that you can’t be arsed running because it’s raining/you’re tired/you can’t find the motivation to pull on your trainers).
My favourite line of the study is that in contrast to moderate levels of exercise “…vigorous activity is almost always experienced as unpleasant while it is performed but there is improved affect and pleasure shortly after finishing…”. I suspect that we all know that to be true.
Far cleverer people than me have commented on the article (not even counting that it’s inspired not one, not two but three comment pieces in the Guardian) and I would heartily recommend this objective but personal response by blogger Purplepersuasion as well.
I will finish with giving you the advice that if you ever see a headline about a health study that makes you raise an eyebrow, make your first port of call the Behind the Headlines pages on NHS Choices, which gives straightforward appraisals of both the studies and how the media have reported them.