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J Sports Sci. 2018 Aug;36(16):1860-1871. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2018.1423856. Epub 2018 Jan 19.

Mass media representations of the evidence as a possible deterrent to recommending exercise for the treatment of depression: Lessons five years after the extraordinary case of TREAD-UK.

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a Department of Kinesiology , Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA.


Exercise or physical activity are recommended options within stepped-care treatment models for depression. However, few physicians present these options to patients, in part because of the impression that the supporting evidence is weak or inconsistent. We speculate that the coocurrence of "counter-messaging" and deficient critical appraisal may lead to such impressions. We focus on TREAD-UK (ISRCTN16900744), the largest trial to investigate "whether physical activity can be an effective treatment for depression within primary care". In media statements, researchers declared that exercise was ineffective in lowering depression. We examined (a) the results of the trial, critiques, and rejoinders, (b) the impact on internet searches, and (c) whether TREAD-UK was critically appraised, as reflected in citing articles. We show that the results of TREAD-UK were misrepresented. The media campaign resulted in a fourfold increase in relevant internet searches. Of articles characterising the results, 57% adopted the interpretation that exercise failed to lower depression, whereas only 17% were critiques. We identify similarities to media portrayals of the OPERA (ISRCTN43769277), DEMO (NCT00103415), and DEMO-II trials (NCT00695552). We note a disconcerting trend of media campaigns that misrepresent the effects of exercise on depression and call for increased scrutiny in peer reviewing both pre- and post-publication.


Counter-messaging; bias; critical appraisal; guidelines; stepped-care models

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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