Depression and exercise – a bit about a study and how it was reported

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.

5 thoughts on “Depression and exercise – a bit about a study and how it was reported

  1. Highway Kind says:

    My worry was that there seemed to be no rigour or control about the type of exercise. 150 minutes per week is just a recommendation for general health benefit. There is no basis for it being the dosage of a treatment. People who have written about how helpful exercise has been for their depression have tended to do far more.
    I think that almost every health study is reported only in terms of a black or white headline. The press doesn’t handle complexity and qualification very well. Thank goodness for Behind the Headlines

  2. morning of magicians says:

    ah, the press and scientific articles. never went together well. an article like the one on the NHS website wouldnt sell, so no use for the media obviously. but hey, i didn’t know about that NHS “behind the headlines” thing yet. the mere existence of such a section is actually quite telling about the media here. the whole point of the NHS section is basically to correct the media. it should actually be the media who do the “objective reporting” not the NHS, but that will only happen in an ideal world. only if you look at how frequently articles appear there, it gives the impression that the media get everything wrong.

  3. henniemavis says:

    “Far cleverer people than me have commented on the article” you say? I’d like to see the results of that study, as I take issue there actually exist more than a rare few as clever or moreso than you!

    Really interesting topic you raise! Depression & fitness, media reporting & its relation to actual research results. I find that exercise (the kind that commands one’s body… ie. sweating, forcing focus on breathing or form or balance) definitely helps my moods. (I have had evals for depression/anxiety & mild bipolar in my past.) My body may be working hard when I run or bike, but at that level of exercise my mind slows & narrows to one task… & thus relaxes my mind, soothes my soul. It’s a fact. Shall I mention how the heavy, deep breathing affects the mind as well? How anxiety causes the holding of breath & when one’s exercising, we do the opposite — one is forced to breathe in lots of air!

    There, there’s my study 🙂 I’m all for scientific research, but in this case, experimenting on myself is/was the best way to know.

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