"What the studies are showing is that exercise, at
least when performed in a group setting, seems to
be at least as effective as standard antidepressant
medications in reducing symptoms in patients with
major depression," said researcher James Blumenthal,
a professor of medical psychology at Duke University
in Durham, N.C.
According to Blumenthal, other studies are beginning
to suggest that solitary exercise, such as workouts
at the gym or a daily jog, can be just as effective
as group activities in beating the blues, and that
"duration of exercise didn't seem to matter -- what
seemed to matter most was whether people were exercising
Blumenthal was lead author on a much-publicized study
released five years ago that found that just 10 months
of regular, moderate exercise outperformed a leading
antidepressant (Zoloft) in easing symptoms in young
adults diagnosed with moderate to severe depression.
And another study released earlier this year, by
researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern
Medical Center at Dallas, found that 30-minute aerobic
workouts done three to five times a week cut depressive
symptoms by 50 percent in young adults.
Theories abound as to how revving up the body helps
uncloud the mind.
Robert E. Thayer is a professor of psychology at
California State University, Long Beach, and the author
of Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food
and Exercise. He said that while workouts probably
affect key brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine,
physical activity may also trigger positive changes
in other areas, too.
"Depression is a condition characterized by low energy
and moderate tension, something I call 'tense tiredness,'"
he said. But exercise has a clear "mood effect" that
seems to ease that anxious but lethargic state, he
According to Thayer, moderate exercise -- a brisk
10-minute walk, for example -- results in a boosting
of energy, although it may not be quite enough to
"More intense exercise -- the amount you'd engage
in with a 45-minute aerobic workout -- does give a
primary mood effect of reducing tension. It might
also leave you with a little less energy because you'd
be tired, of course," he said. "However, there's also
some indication from the research that there's a 'rebound'
effect an hour or so later, in terms of [increased]
Blumenthal pointed to the more lasting psychological
boost regular workouts can bring. "People who exercise
might also have better self-esteem; it may help them
feel better about themselves, having that great sense
of accomplishment," he said.
Still, the experts acknowledged that truly depressed
individuals often find it tough to jump into an exercise
"Why do people not do the thing that's perhaps
the most important thing for them to do?" said Thayer.
"It's because a drop in energy is such a central component
of depression -- you just don't have the energy to
do the exercise."
He said the key to breaking that cycle is to start
"Thinking about going to the gym and doing all the
stuff that's involved with that can be overwhelming
for a depressed person," Thayer pointed out. "But
if you think 'Hey, maybe I'll just walk down the street
30 yards or so, at a leisurely pace,' that's a start.
And it turns out that your body becomes activated
then -- you have more of an incentive to walk farther,
to do more."
Loved ones can play a key role, too, urging a depressed
friend or family member to join in with them as they
work out. "Social support, peer pressure, family support
-- all of that can be helpful, certainly in getting
people to maintain exercise," Blumenthal said.
No one is saying that exercise is always a substitute
for drug therapy, especially for the severely depressed.
"But we also know that these drugs aren't effective
for everyone -- about a third of people aren't going
to get better with medication," Blumenthal said.
For those patients, exercise may prove a viable,
worry-free alternative -- with one great fringe benefit.
"In addition to its mental health benefits, there
are some clear cardiovascular benefits to exercise
which we don't see with antidepressant drugs, of course,"
Blumenthal noted. So, he said, what keeps the mind
fit strengthens the body, too. "You're killing two
birds with one stone.
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