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Yoga may help ease depression in people with mental disorders, study finds

Yoga should be considered along with more conventional forms of exercise as part of the standard care for depression, the study’s authors conclude.

Yoga should be considered along with more conventional forms of exercise as part of the standard care for depression, the study’s authors conclude.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Yoga appears to help ease symptoms of depression in people with a wide range of mental disorders, a new Australian study suggests.

The study — a systematic review and meta-analysis of previous research — also found that the more frequently people attended yoga sessions each week, the greater the reduction in symptoms.

Yoga should be considered along with more conventional forms of exercise as part of the standard care for depression, the study’s authors conclude.

“Our review of available evidence shows that movement-based yoga improves symptoms of depression in people who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder,” says Jacinta Brinsley, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at the University of South Australia, in a released statement.

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That may also be good news, she adds, for people struggling with depression during the stressful and uncertain times of the current coronavirus pandemic.

The study was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Exercise is helpful

Depression is a leading cause of disability, both globally and in the United States. It can interfere with every aspect of life, including the ability to work, sleep, think, socialize and enjoy everyday pursuits. Each year, about 7 percent of American adults — 17 million individuals — experience at least one major depressive episode (defined as at least two weeks of a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities). Depression is also often a symptom of other mental health problems, such as generalized anxiety and psychotic disorders.

Plenty of research has shown that physical activity can help reduce the symptoms of depression, and exercise interventions are now recommended for its treatment. Most of that research has focused on aerobic exercise, such as running, walking, swimming and biking.  Some studies have suggested, however, that physically active yoga — types that combine physical movement with breathing exercises and meditation — may help relieve depression, too.

The findings from those studies didn’t always make it clear which components of yoga-based interventions were beneficial — or whether yoga might be helpful for people with a range of mental disorders. Brinsley and her colleagues decided to see if they could answer those questions.

Study details

The researchers reviewed 19 clinical trials involving conducted in six countries: the United States, Germany, Sweden, Japan, China and India. (Most — 12 — were from the U.S.) They then pooled the data from 13 of the studies for the meta-analysis. All 1,080 participants in the studies had been diagnosed with a mental health problem, including depressive disorders (major depression and bipolar depression), schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol dependence.

In each clinical trial, some of the participants were assigned to one to three weekly yoga sessions lasting between 20 and 90 minutes each (average time: 60 minutes). The other participants were assigned to a “control group,” which may have included treatment as usual, being put on a waitlist for the sessions, or receiving some kind of new non-yoga contact with people (to control for the benefits of attention that come from meeting with others during yoga classes).

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The yoga sessions featured different types of yoga, including hatha, kundalini and kripalu, and included a mixture of movement, breathing exercises and meditation, although movement comprised more than half of each session.

Key findings

The meta-analysis revealed that people who did yoga experienced a greater reduction in depressive symptoms than those in the control groups. The effect was most evident among people with a depressive disorder or schizophrenia and, to a lesser extent, among those with alcohol dependency. No effect was seen among people with PTSD.

The analysis also found that the more yoga sessions the participants took each week, the greater the benefit.

“This is an important findings and should be considered in the design of future yoga interventions targeted at depressive symptoms in people with mental disorders,” the researchers write. “Interventions should aim to increase the frequency of their sessions per week, as opposed to the duration of each session or the overall duration of the intervention.”

Unfortunately, the studies were too few in number for the researchers to determine whether particular types of yoga have a greater impact than others. The studies had other limitations as well, such as unclear descriptions of the types and components of yoga prescribed, different ways of reporting outcomes (changes in depressive symptoms) and short follow-up periods. These factors mean the results of the meta-analysis should be interpreted with caution, say its authors.

“To understand the mechanism by which yoga has an effect on mental and physical health, we need more and better data on the intervention variables such as type of yoga, intensity, environment, instructor qualification, specific postures, cueing, philosophical focuses, mindfulness techniques and breathing techniques,” says Simon Rosenbaum, the study’s senior author and an exercise physiologist at the University of New South Wales, in a released statement.

“But our results have significant implications and demonstrate that you don’t necessarily need to go for a job to benefit from movement,” he adds.

FMI:  You’ll find an abstract of the study on the British Journal of Sports Medicine website, but the full study is behind a paywall.