Can Exercise Treat Depression?


Many research studies have been performed for the purpose of evaluating the effect of exercise in reducing symptoms of depression.

These studies report that exercise is very effective in alleviating the symptoms of depression. In fact, they have proven that exercise is as effective, or perhaps even more so than the use of medication, cognitive therapy, and individual or group psychotherapy for reducing depression symptoms.

Just ask any serious runner and they will readily tell you that the phenomena known as the “runner’s high” is real. One of the most surprising things, though, is that even light exercise such as walking seems to be enough exercise to boost the moods and help reduce the symptoms of depression in most research participants.

Medical experts had long held the belief that only people who were mildly or moderately affected by depression would benefit from exercise.  Now, there is research that indicates their beliefs are not correct and that the mood of sufferers of severe depression is also improved.

Conclusions of A Medical University Research Project

A study performed at Duke University in North Carolina, under the direction of professor of medical psychology James Blumenthal, Ph.D.,  followed 156 people who were middle-aged and older adults who had been diagnosed with mild to severe clinical depression.

The study lasted 16 weeks and compared the effect of three different treatment programs.

The treatment used with one group was exercise alone which consisted of running or walking as a group for at least 30 minutes, this was done three times a week.

One group was treated with the often prescribed antidepressant Zoloft. And the third group was treated with a combination of the two programs stated above.

All of the groups reported marked improvements, much to the surprise of the researchers. The two groups that took Zoloft felt better sooner, but the antidepressant did not prove to be more effective in the long-term than exercise alone.

Dr. Blumenthal did not expect the surprising results of his study which concluded that exercise is beneficial for severe depression as well as mild to moderate symptoms of depression.

As reported in the October 25th, 1999 Archives of Internal Medicine he said: “The patients that had a moderate to severe depression responded as well as those with just a mild depression.”

According to the October 2000 edition of Psychosomatic Medicine, the lowest relapse rates were experienced by those individuals still participating in their prescribed program of exercise six months later.

The group that used exercise alone had a recurrence rate of only 8 % versus a 38% relapse in the group that was treated with only Zoloft. The group whose treatment consisted of both medication and exercise had a relapse rate of 31%.

How Exercise Helps

All of the ways in which exercise benefits people who suffer from depression isn’t fully understood, but two of the primary ways is as follows:

  • Exercise increases the production, in some complex way, of “feel good” chemicals which are produced in the brain including dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and phenylethylamine or PEA.
  • Reduces the release of stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline and makes a more relaxed state of mind easier to attain.

If you want to reduce or, perhaps, alleviate your symptoms of depression, why not consider beginning a regular exercise routine. It doesn’t have to be strenuous.

If you haven’t exercised in a long time, start out slowly and work up to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, three times a week, in order to get the same benefits as the research group in Dr. Blumenthal’s study.

Of course, just to be on the safe side, you will want to check with your primary care physician first to find out if there is any reason you should not exercise.


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