Tracking Physical Activity and Improvements in Depression Symptoms

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Studies have shown that exercise can alleviate symptoms of mild depression and prevent relapse. With the ubiquitous nature of smartphones, and their ability to passively track our daily activity levels examining how this how this feature can be used to support people with depression in increasing their activity levels as an adjunct to treatment seems ripe for study.

Emerging Evidence

A new paper in the Journal of Medical Internet Research by Jeffrey Lambert and colleagues from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom examined the role of physical activity tracking in a community sample of 62 people to determine if a web-based intervention that educated participants on aspects of behavioral activation and physical activity promotion would alleviate symptoms of depression.

The eMotion study recruited participants via social media and 62 of 183 people who responded participated. At the beginning of the study, the average Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ) score was 14 which is in the moderate depression range, and participants reported an average of 35.8 moderate to vigorous minutes of physical activity a week. The recommended amount is 150 mins/week. A control sample was also included using a waitlist methodology.

Over eight weeks participants tracked their activity and completed web-based education which included action planning, self-monitoring, and tracking activity with an accelerometer. Overall the attrition rate was 19%. The majority of participants were female (84%), and the average age was 38. The exploratory analysis did show promise- participants in the intervention showed reduced scores on the PHQ with 56% of results moving below 10, i.e., from moderate to mild depression compared to 28% in the control (waitlist) group. Symptoms of anxiety were also lower in the intervention group. While activity trended upwards at the end of eight weeks no significant differences were found, the authors conclude this may have been due to the low number of participants reporting their activity levels.

This study is another example of the potential for exercise to be part of the treatment plan for moderate depression and anxiety. Future work should focus on stronger methods to enhance engagement which would allow for more robust data analysis but the early signals from this work show promise. Given the global burden of depression and anxiety and the recognition that place-based intervention can improve activity levels the potential for promotion of physical activity where people, live, work, play, pray, learn has the opportunity to improve mental and physical health.

Thanks for reading- Trina
(My opinions are my own)


Depression and Exercise
Cooney GM, Dwan K, Greig CA, Lawlor DA, Rimer J, Waugh FR, et al. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013;9:CD004366

Rebar AL, Stanton R, Geard D, Short C, Duncan MJ, Vandelanotte C. A meta-meta-analysis of the effect of physical activity on depression and anxiety in non-clinical adult populations. Health Psychol Rev 2015;9(3):366-378.

eMotion Study by Lambert and colleagues


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