Introduction: The aim of this study was to assess the effect of exercise on depression in university students.
Evidence acquisition: A systematic literature search was conducted in PubMed, EMBASE and the Cochrane library from their inception through December 10, 2014 to identify relevant articles. The heterogeneity across studies was examined by Cochran's Q statistic and the I2 statistic. Standardized mean difference (SMD) and 95% confidence interval (CI) were pooled to evaluate the effect of exercise on depression. Then, sensitivity and subgroup analyses were performed. In addition, publication bias was assessed by drawing a funnel plot.
Evidence synthesis: A total of 352 participants (154 cases and 182 controls) from eight included trials were included. Our pooled result showed a significant alleviative depression after exercise (SMD=-0.50, 95% CI: -0.97 to -0.03, P=0.04) with significant heterogeneity (P=0.003, I2=67%). Sensitivity analyses showed that the pooled result may be unstable. Subgroup analysis indicated that sample size may be a source of heterogeneity. Moreover, no publication bias was observed in this study.
Conclusions: Exercise may be an effective therapy for treating depression in university students. However, further clinical studies with strict design and large samples focused on this specific population should be warranted in the future.