Exercise as an Antidepressant

For many people who suffer from the symptoms of depression, the prospect of taking regularly prescribed medication for relief from these symptoms just compounds the problem. Add the all-too-common practice of medical practitioners prescribing secondary medication when the first batch doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, and it’s easy to see how the outlook of someone depending on antidepressants just to make it through the day can be grim.

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas have determined that something as simple as physical exercise can actually countermand the “need” for a secondary prescription in possibly as many as half of depression sufferers who currently rely on a second prescription. In a study that took place over four years by the UT Southwestern team in conjunction with the Cooper Institute in Dallas, it was discovered that physical exercise regimes could range from moderate to intense, adjusted depending on each particular patient’s characteristics and circumstances.

Exercise as an AntidepressantThe study’s lead author, Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, says: “Many people who start on an antidepressant medication feel better after they begin treatment, but they still don’t feel completely well or as good as they did before they became depressed. This study shows that exercise can be as effective as adding another medication. Many people would rather use exercise than add another drug, particularly as exercise has a proven positive effect on a person’s overall health and well-being.”

Patients who were found to be unresponsive to a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressant were chosen to participate in the study, and ranged in age from 18 to 70. The patients were divided into two groups and subjected to different levels of exercise intensity on treadmills and/or cycle ergometers. After 12 weeks, it was determined that almost 30% of patients in both groups showed full remission of their depression symptoms, with an additional 20% showing marked improvement. An interesting note: women with a family history of mental illness responded best to moderate exercise, whereas women without such a family history did better with more intense workouts. Men, on the other hand, all responded superlatively to exercise of greater intensity.

Dr. Trivedi concludes: “This is an important result in that we found that the type of exercise that is needed depends on specific characteristics of the patient, illustrating that treatments may need to be tailored to the individual. It also points to a new direction in trying to determine factors that tell us which treatment may be the most effective.”