Amidst strong efforts to promote the therapeutic benefits of physical activity for reducing depression and anxiety in clinical populations, little focus has been directed towards the mental health benefits of activity for non-clinical populations. The objective of this meta-meta-analysis was to systematically aggregate and quantify high-quality meta-analytic findings of the effects of physical activity on depression and anxiety for non-clinical populations. A systematic search identified eight meta-analytic outcomes of randomised trials that investigated the effects of physical activity on depression or anxiety. The subsequent meta-meta-analyses were based on a total of 92 studies with 4310 participants for the effect of physical activity on depression and 306 study effects with 10,755 participants for the effect of physical activity on anxiety. Physical activity reduced depression by a medium effect [standardised mean difference (SMD) = -0.50; 95% CI: -0.93 to -0.06] and anxiety by a small effect (SMD = -0.38; 95% CI: -0.66 to -0.11). Neither effect showed significant heterogeneity across meta-analyses. These findings represent a comprehensive body of high-quality evidence that physical activity reduces depression and anxiety in non-clinical populations.
Keywords: anxiety; depression; exercise; mental health; meta-analysis; physical activity.