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Exercise and Depression:  New Findings to Support Healthy Habits

It is hard to go a day without seeing some type of advertisement for pharmacologic treatments, especially those for depression. In the US pharmacologic use is big business, as estimates from the Centers for Disease Control in the United States report approximately 10% of the US population aged 12 years or older is diagnosed as being clinically depressed and 1 out of 10 people in the US over the age of 12 take antidepressants. It is clear that as more people are being diagnosed with depression, the first-line intervention is often a pharmacologic one,  as antidepressant use has increased 400% from 1988-1994 to 2005-2008.

Due to this staggering increase in pharmacologic use, recent studies across the globe have been aimed at evaluating non-pharmacologic interventions to treat depression, and exercise is at the forefront.

Conversely, across the pond in Europe, it is common for first-line treatments to be lifestyle or behaviorally based. In fact, based upon research findings, the United Kingdom’s National Institutes for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) have established specific guidelines for the treatment of depression using aerobic and resistance exercise for 45-59 minutes, 5 times per week for a duration of 10-14 weeks1. These prescriptions are more than the traditional activity recommendations used here in the United States for normal, healthy adults to maintain their health.

Additionally, a recent Cochrane Review2 found the following:

  • Clinical outcomes were the same when comparing pharmacotherapy (antidepressants) and psychological interventions to exercise prescriptions, indicating that exercise may be just as effective as going to a psychologist or using antidepressants
  • Both aerobic and resistance training are beneficial, however resistance training appears to have a greater effect

Knowing these facts, researchers at Queensland University, in Australia, set out to determine which specific variables seem to improve depressive symptoms most effectively3. Their particular study reviewed randomized, controlled trials from 1960- 2008 that met the following criteria:

  • The study population was limited to adults, 18-65 years of age
  • All participants were diagnosed with clinical depression per the Diagnosis Statistical Manual IV criteria
  • The interventions used were either aerobic or resistance training

Using the data from these studies, general recommendations regarding exercise as a treatment for depression can be made and include:

  • Supervised activity is more beneficial than unsupervised (ie: working with a trainer is more beneficial than going at it alone)
  • Aerobic activity (walking, running, cross-training) at low to moderate intensity is most beneficial
  • Activity should be completed for 30-40 minutes, 3-4 times per week
  • Activity should be completed for a duration of 9 weeks for most benefit

These recommendations echo those of the NICE guidelines and indicate that perhaps researchers are on to something. It is hard to deny the positive mood effects of an exercise session, and now we have solid research to confirm the subjective benefits.

If you haven’t already started an exercise program and are looking to improve your mood, perhaps a vigorous workout could be just as beneficial as a session with your psychologist!

As with all medical advice, make sure to check with your doctor before considering discontinuing any  medication or beginning an exercise program. If you need help starting with an exercise program, feel free to reach out to us at Vita Fitness & Physical Therapy. Our trainers and therapists are experts in their fields and will provide you a comprehensive evaluation of your current fitness. After your evaluation, a customized progressive program will be created to ensure you achieve your goals. We are located in the Historic Third Ward and offer an upscale, private gym setting where you can feel at ease.

We look forward to working with you!


By: Colleen Baughn. OTR. CES

  1. NICE Depression: the treatment and management of depression in adults (update) NICE clinical guideline 90, 2009. Available from: www.nice.org.uk/CG90.
  2. Mead GE, MorleyW, Campbell P et al. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2009; 8(3):CD004366.
  3. Stanton R, Reaburn P. Exercise and the treatment of depression: A review of the exercise program variables. J Sci Med Sport (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2013.03.010
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