Can exercise beat depression? Yes, according to numerous studies conducted over the past decade. What's more, a recent study out of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, suggests that exercise may be even more effective than prescription drugs in chasing away depression's symptoms long-term.
Duke researchers recruited 156 men and women over the age of 50 who were suffering from moderate clinical depression. Their symptoms included depressed mood, the feeling of slowness, difficulty sleeping, and loss of appetite. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: aerobic exercise, the antidepressant Zoloft, or a combination of the two.
The exercise involved three supervised workout sessions a week for four months. Each session included a 10-minute warm-up, 30 minutes of walking or jogging at a level necessary to stay within the target heart rate range (75-85% of maximum), and a 5-minute cool-down.
After four weeks, participants in all three treatment groups had significantly reduced their level of depression. At the end of the four months, all had achieved levels of recovery that were nearly complete. Nearly all were in remission. The patients on medication alone had the most rapid reduction in symptoms, whereas those on the medicine-exercise combination had the slowest.
But here's the most intriguing finding: After ten months, patients in the exercise-only group had significantly lower rates of relapse back into depression than those who had taken the antidepressant. Nearly 90% of those treated with exercise alone stayed well, while the wellness percentages of those on medication either alone or in combination with exercise were much lower.
An added benefit of the exercise was that patients gained a significant increase in aerobic capacity and exercise tolerance. They felt better about themselves and were in better physical shape.
A body of evidence
Other research has yielded similar results. In a British study, depressed patients were assigned to either exercise or health-education sessions for 10 weeks, in addition to antidepressant therapy. The exercise group experienced considerably better improvement in depression.
These and other studies suggest that moderate aerobic exercise is extremely helpful in alleviating symptoms of depression. Is it good for everybody? Of course not. Some individuals with severe depression can't get out bed, much less exercise. And others, for a variety of reasons, are not able to exercise. However, for those who can exercise, it is certainly worth considering.
Researchers have not yet conclusively determined why physical activity beats the blues. But we do know that exercisers develop a sense of mastery, improve their ability to interact socially, sleep better, and perhaps experience a brain chemical boost — enough reasons to get moving.