Treat Depression with Exercise, Report Urges

A new report published by the Mental Health Foundation says GPs should be offering exercise on prescription to all patients with depression.

The report finds that a supervised programme of exercise on prescription can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild or moderate depression – but that GPs are still turning to antidepressants as their first-line treatment due to a perceived lack of available alternatives. Many of the GPs surveyed for the report do not believe exercise is an effective treatment, despite advice from the Chief Medical Officer as well as a substantial weight of evidence.

Key findings of the report include:

• the cost of antidepressant prescriptions in England has risen by more than 2,000 per cent over the last twelve years
• only five per cent of GPs use exercise as one of their three most common treatment responses
• 92 per cent of GPs surveyed for the report use antidepressants as one of their three most common treatment responses
• 78 per cent of GPs have prescribed an antidepressant in the last three years despite believing that an alternative treatment might have been more appropriate…
• two thirds of the GPs polled have done so because a suitable alternative was not available, and 62 per cent because there was a waiting list for the suitable alternative.

The Foundation makes a number of recommendations in the report. First among these is a call for the Government to invest £20 million in developing and promoting exercise referral as a treatment for mild or moderate depression across the UK – this represents around five percent of the annual spend on antidepressants in England.

Dr Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said:
“Patients with mild or moderate depression asking their GPs for help are currently being denied an effective treatment option – exercise referral. There are some obstacles standing in the way of exercise on prescription for all… but they’re not insurmountable. Society needs to be educated about the benefits of exercise in treating mild or moderate depression, and GPs need to be made aware that exercise referral is available.”

Paul Bates, Head of Mental Health and Disability Services, at South Tyneside Primary Care Trust, said: “For GPs, the cost of changing their practice is psychological, not financial. They’re beginning to see that there are alternatives to writing a prescription, and that it’s not their sole responsibility to deal with a person’s problem – there are alternatives, and exercise referral is an example of that.”

Liz Griffiths, Empowerment Coordinator of Welsh Mental Health Charity Hafal, said: “Exercise is also of great importance to people with severe mental illness, both to improve their physical health and as part of a package of treatment and care, which may also include medication, aimed at achieving recovery.”

The report marks the beginning of year-long campaign calling for all patients with mild or moderate depression to be offered exercise therapy. For more information on the campaign, or to read the report, click here.

For more information on maintaining and improving physical health as part of recovery from a mental illness, go to our whole person approach page.