Physical Activity and Incident Depression: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies


The authors examined the prospective relationship between physical activity and incident depression and explored potential moderators.


Prospective cohort studies evaluating incident depression were searched from database inception through Oct. 18, 2017, on PubMed, PsycINFO, Embase, and SPORTDiscus. Demographic and clinical data, data on physical activity and depression assessments, and odds ratios, relative risks, and hazard ratios with 95% confidence intervals were extracted. Random-effects meta-analyses were conducted, and the potential sources of heterogeneity were explored. Methodological quality was assessed using the Newcastle-Ottawa Scale.


A total of 49 unique prospective studies (N=266,939; median proportion of males across studies, 47%) were followed up for 1,837,794 person-years. Compared with people with low levels of physical activity, those with high levels had lower odds of developing depression (adjusted odds ratio=0.83, 95% CI=0.79, 0.88; I2=0.00). Furthermore, physical activity had a protective effect against the emergence of depression in youths (adjusted odds ratio=0.90, 95% CI=0.83, 0.98), in adults (adjusted odds ratio=0.78, 95% CI=0.70, 0.87), and in elderly persons (adjusted odds ratio=0.79, 95% CI=0.72, 0.86). Protective effects against depression were found across geographical regions, with adjusted odds ratios ranging from 0.65 to 0.84 in Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania, and against increased incidence of positive screen for depressive symptoms (adjusted odds ratio=0.84, 95% CI=0.79, 0.89) or major depression diagnosis (adjusted odds ratio=0.86, 95% CI=0.75, 0.98). No moderators were identified. Results were consistent for unadjusted odds ratios and for adjusted and unadjusted relative risks/hazard ratios. Overall study quality was moderate to high (Newcastle-Ottawa Scale score, 6.3). Although significant publication bias was found, adjusting for this did not change the magnitude of the associations.


Available evidence supports the notion that physical activity can confer protection against the emergence of depression regardless of age and geographical region.

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