Exercise Not Only Treats, But Prevents Depression


science.howstuffworks.comPsychologists have touted for decades that exercise can go a long way in treating depression. Dr. James A. Blumenthal, a professor of medical psychology at Duke University, led a recent study in which he and his team discovered that, among the 202 depressed people randomly assigned to various treatments, three sessions of vigorous aerobic exercise were approximately as effective at treating depression as daily doses of Zoloft, when the treatment effects were measured after four months.

A separate study showed that the depressives who improved with exercise were less likely to relapse after 10 months than those treated successfully with antidepressants, and the participants who continued to exercise beyond four months were half as likely to relapse months later compared to those who did not exercise.

Even as little as 20 minutes a week of physical activity can boost mental health. In a new Scottish study, reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, 20,000 people were asked about their state of mind and how much physical activity they do in a week. The results showed that the more physical activity a person engaged in—including housework, gardening, walking, and sports–the lower their risk of distress and anxiety.

But now PhD candidate George Mammen’s review published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has taken the connection one step further, finding that moderate exercise can actually prevent episodes of depression in the long term.

This is the first longitudinal review to focus exclusively on the role that exercise plays in maintaining good mental health and preventing the onset of depression later in life.

Mammen—who is supervised by Professor Guy Faulkner, a co-author of the review— analyzed over 26 years’ worth of research findings to discover that even low levels of physical activity (walking and gardening for 20-30 minutes a day) can ward off depression in people of all age groups.

Mammen’s findings come at a time when mental health experts want to expand their approach beyond treating depression with costly prescription medication. “We need a prevention strategy now more than ever,” he says. “Our health system is taxed. We need to shift focus and look for ways to fend off depression from the start.”

Mammen acknowledges that other factors influence a person’s likelihood of experiencing depression, including their genetic makeup. But he says that the scope of research he assessed demonstrates that regardless of individual predispositions, there’s a clear take-away for everyone. “It’s definitely worth taking note that if you’re currently active, you should sustain it.  If you’re not physically active, you should initiate the habit. This review shows promising evidence that the impact of being active goes far beyond the physical.”

Image: Science.HowStuffWorks.com

Published originally on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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10 Responses
  1. Couldn’t agree more. I worked off an anxiety episode just this last Sunday. I had felt my mood plummet so I got on my elliptical and worked hard for thirty minutes. Was completely anxiety free when I finished.

  2. Elizabeth

    Agreed. I have been experiencing super high anxiety and increasing bouts of melancholy lately and this weekend– on a lazy Sunday no less, I was having random adrenaline surges. I was so tired of it so I strapped on my sneakers and went out into nature for an hour long hike– up hill to the river overlook. Not only did I work out the adrenaline but I also experienced the tranquility of nature. I have felt fine since and it’s now Monday morning.

    1. Elizabeth

      I just left you a comment on Sanity Break and realized that here I’m talking about my love of nature and going outdoors and on Sanity Break, I spoke about how fearful I was of the outdoors for a period of my childhood– it just made me feel good to see how far I’ve come and I thought I’d share that with you.

  3. Therese,

    My, my, my. You have some wonderful articles on depression! Once more I’m asking to reblog on triumphoverdepression.org.


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  4. Sara

    I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder though I forget which one (that is bad). I fall into depression spells about every 3 months like clock work, it is so sad waiting for a new episode to start. It is like the feeling you get right before you vomit, the nervousness and sharpness and queeziness, and no matter how hard you try to prepare for it, you still get know ked flat on your back. I take no meds, and I have not seen a Dr in a year (my choice, financial reasons) and I feel awful. I can work a job, cook, and clean and I make myself exercise daily, even if it rains I jog. I am obese, so I am not fast and I get mocked by people around me, but I am soo committed to trying to feel better and get some weight off. I have been doing this for 3 months. So far, nothing. I have not lost weight, I still got depressed and am having major suicidal thoughts. While I am jogging, if I have a depressed thought, I run harder and faster. This hurts me physically and my mind concentrates on the pain so the though leaves for a few minutes. Problem is, as I said, I am very large and heavy and can only do bursts like that every 5 minutes then I power walk til I can run again.
    Why I keep doing this when I see no results I’m not sure…guess I am waiting for a miracle. I also think I try to punish myself with pain to get rid of the depressed thought, sort of like shock therapy. I cannot say the exercise has helped my mind at all, I have not lost even 1/2 a pound, still suicidal thoughts. I figure one day I will wake up and that will be it, the day I choose to end my suffering. What attracts me to exercising is pushing myself to complete something, anything when I feel so useless. 30 minutes of running/walking and 30 minutes of moderate cardio 7 days a week right now. Maybe in 8 or 9 months, if I am still here, things will be better but 3 months has not helped at all.
    Great article though and I am glad others feel better

    1. Renee

      The fact that you are trying is amazing… I have had success with cutting carbs and sugar in losing weight. Even though you are exercising, your body is burning sugar instead of fat for energy and that is why you are not losing despite exercise. It is hard and I love bread, cookies, etc but I try not to eat them during the day – just protein like eggs or meat and veggies and fruit. Just water or seltzer to drink.Then for dinner I will allow some carbs and it has worked – slowly of course, but it works. Sugar also increases your chances for depressive episodes. I wish you luck with your battle – please keep trying!

  5. Gracie

    I am 68. My first experience with depression was over 30 years ago. I have been on almost every different antipressant out there. I had my DNA done and followed the medical results. In 2016 I had ECT. Nothing worked. I just started a walking program with my newly retired husband. I am optimistic that this will be the turning point. My depression has gotten worse so I shut down. Inactivity only worsened things. I also am about 50 pounds overweight!
    I hate how I look. I refuse to give up. I want my life back. Just knowing I am doing something not just staying in the pit has helped. This is a horrible disease. We cannot let it destroy us. …Gracie

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