Getting your headline straight - exercise and depression
Posted Friday 8 June 2012
Returning from the extended Jubilee holiday on Wednesday, we were confronted with some pretty demoralising headlines: "Exercise ‘no help for depression’, research suggests" said the BBC website. “Exercise doesn't help depression, study concludes”, the Guardian agreed.
We believe in the value of research - we need to know what is helpful for people dealing with mental health problems. But we also believe in the value of outdoor exercise in helping with mild to moderate depression, based on our own research and the many people we hear from every week who tell us how great exercise makes them feel. Hence the disappointment.
Unsurprisingly, the research – or rather the reporting of it – produced a lot of heated comment on our Facebook page and Twitter feed. Many people said that exercise worked for them. Others said it didn’t.
But it didn’t take long to realise that these news reports and many others weren’t giving a true picture of the research, which was carried out by teams from the Universities of Bristol, Exeter and the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry and published by the British Medical Journal.
In fact the introduction to the BBC story didn’t match its own headline:
Combining exercise with conventional treatments for depression does not improve recovery, research suggests.
The story made clear that the research tested the impact of exercise on people who were also prescribed medication, or a talking therapy, or both, as did this comment from Professor Alan Maryon-Davis of King's College London:
…we need to bear in mind that these were patients already on medication, so it considers exercise on top of medical care. It did not look at mild depression nor did it consider exercise as an alternative to medication.
All 361 people who took part in the research showed improvement. It was just that those advised to take exercise didn’t show any more improvement than those given “usual care” alone. A 'Behind the headlines' piece from NHS Choices gives a good account of the research.
If you’ve followed the link to the BBC article, you may have noticed that its headline was later changed to “Depression: Exercise advice questioned when added to standard treatments”, which is a far better description of the story itself and the research.
As far as the Guardian story (sourced from the Press Association) was concerned, you only had to read to the second paragarph to realise that the first one was too big a generalisation:
A study into whether physical activity alleviates the symptoms of depression has found there is no benefit.
Research published in the British Medical Journal suggests that adding a physical activity intervention to usual care did not reduce symptoms of depression more than usual care alone.
Interestingly, the Guardian website carried a few pieces disagreeing with the story, based on personal experience. John Crace wrote a remarkably honest piece saying that going to the gym “has come to feel like a life-saver.”
Mark Oxley-Rice wondered whether anecdotal evidence and empirical science are both slightly mistaken: ‘We depressives are not to be trusted when we declare what is good for us.” Simon Hattenstone found the research churlish and patronising, perhaps not realising how badly it had been presented in the media.
There is always going to be a disconnect between what people experience in their varied lives and circumstances and what even the best constructed research reports.
There remain a lot of unanswered questions about when and if exercise can be of benefit for the many people with different experiences of depression. What is clear is that misleading headlines and reporting which only tells half the story can do a lot of damage.
Ambiguous reporting can be halfway round the world before the facts have got their trainers on.
Chris Ames, Information Manager
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