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Walking may help ease mild depression, study finds

This meta-analysis should be of interest to many of the nearly 1 in 10 Americans who have symptoms of depression.

Less strenuous exercise, like walking, has major health benefits.

We have considerable research that physical exercise can help ease mild to moderate depression. But just how intense must that exercise be? Can a not-too-vigorous activity — like walking — have a positive effect on mood? Surprisingly, studies that have investigated walking and depression haven’t been all that conclusive. Some have found an effect. Others haven’t.

A team of British researchers recently decided to pool the data from the best of these studies to see if they could figure out just what kind of impact — if any — walking has on mild to moderate depression. Their resulting meta-analysis, published this month in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, found that walking may indeed be a promising treatment for mild to moderate depression.

The authors of this new study did, however, emphasize that more research is needed to confirm their finding and to determine such details as how often, how fast and how long people need to walk to experience the greatest mood-lifting benefits.

Still, this meta-analysis should be of interest to many of the nearly 1 in 10 Americans who have symptoms of depression, as reported in a survey published last fall by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Walking is, after all, easy and inexpensive for most people to do. It also poses few risks.

Looking for the gold

For this meta-analysis, the British researchers worked their way through 11 databases (more than 14,000 journal articles), looking for randomized controlled trials (considered the gold standard of studies) that investigated the effects of walking on mild or moderate depression. The studies could compare walking with no treatment or with a standard treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Studies that bundled walking with other forms of exercises were excluded, however.

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The researchers found only eight small clinical trials that met their inclusion criteria. They pooled and then analyzed the data from these trials. Not all of the studies had reported that walking eased the symptoms of depression. But when the results were pooled together, the data showed something different: a significant reduction in depression.

Several limitations

As the study’s authors point out, this meta-analysis comes with several caveats. Most notably, the studies that were analyzed were quite small. They included a total of only 341 individuals. Furthermore, the studies’ methodology varied widely. People walked for different lengths of time (20 to 50 minutes), for example, and at different frequencies (from three times a week to daily). Some of the people walked on treadmills, while others did it outdoors. Some joined organized walking groups; others walked alone. Which factors were most beneficial to the people in the studies with mild to moderate depression is unknown.

Still, “walking has the potential to produce an effect in reducing symptoms of depression comparable to other forms of physical activity,” the study’s authors conclude.

Seems worth the investment in a pair of good walking shoes.