Exercise is Medicine for Depression

Depression can be a short-term state or a long-term clinical disorder.  Depression as a transient mood state is characterized by feeling sad, discouraged, or unhappy. These feelings generally resolve over the course of a few days or less.  Depression as a clinical condition is a psychiatric disorder where certain diagnostic criteria must be met.  The diagnosis of major depressive disorder requires psychiatric evaluation by a qualified professional. The diagnosis typically includes at least several of the following: weight loss, sleep disturbance, agitation, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, diminished concentration, and possibly recurrent thoughts of death.  Major depressive disorder is distinguished from transient feelings of depression by both the severity and duration of symptoms.

It is estimated that one in five adults will suffer from major depressive disorder at some point in their life.  The incidence is higher in women.  One in four adolescents suffers from depression and this increases the risk of depression later in life.   Depression has also been linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.  All of these disorders, including depression, are on the rise in the United States.   These disorders are also commonplace in outpatient physical therapy clinics where individuals are recovering from injuries.  Perhaps, the knowledge and positive habits learned in physical therapy can assist those with symptoms of depression and chronic disease.  Follow-through with a long-term exercise program can produce meaningful changes in mood, physical health, and quality of life.   All of these benefits can be achieved without the adverse effects associated with other forms of treatment.

Conventional Treatments for Depression

Antidepressant medication is the staple treatment for symptoms of depression.  Approximately half of individuals with depression will respond favorably to prescription medications without side effects.  The other half will either not respond to treatment or suffer side effects from the medications such as constipation, sleep loss, blurred vision, weight gain, fatigue, nausea, and sexual dysfunction.

Treatment may involve individual or group counseling lasting several months. Psychotherapy has been shown to be an effective long-term treatment for depression.  This form of treatment is often used in conjunction with antidepressant medication for individuals with more severe depression.   Cognitive behavioral therapy is one form of psychotherapy which aims to identify and change negative thoughts in those with depression.

Exercise as a Treatment for Depression

As a stand-alone treatment, exercise has been shown to result in moderate to large improvements in depressive symptoms.  Research has also shown no difference in outcomes when comparing exercise to cognitive behavioral therapy.  When combining the results from four studies, no differences were found between the effects of exercise and antidepressant medication.  This is not to suggest that medication and psychotherapy are ineffective.  Instead, exercise may enhance the effects of these conventional treatments for depression.  And perhaps, exercise may even be able to replace them over time.

Type and Dose of Exercise to Manage Depression

Most studies showing positive effects with exercise have included some form of aerobic exercise.  Walking, jogging, and cycling are the most commonly utilized forms of aerobic exercise.  The optimal frequency of exercise has not been determined but most studies have included exercising 3-5 times per week.  Programs with higher energy expenditures have been shown to produce greater results but positive effects can be achieved with lower intensity programs. A good starting point is to perform short walks 3 days per week.   As aerobic capacity and confidence improve, exercise should be progressed based on the American College of Sports Medicine recommendations of moderate intensity exercise performed for at least 30 minutes 5 days per week.  As aerobic capacity improves, exercise intensity and duration should be progressed in order to continue to make gains.

Tips to Increase Chances of Success

The first challenge with any exercise program is simply taking the first step.  Starting small and gradually building up the intensity, duration, and frequency is a wise approach.  Expect minor setbacks along the way and do not be discouraged when they occur.  The antidepressant effects of exercise takes time.  Be patient.   Once you begin to notice small progress in your exercise capacity and overall well-being, momentum will start to build.  The key to long-term adherence is to stay disciplined and develop habits for a lifetime.  Below are a few tips to help you on your journey.

  • Pick a form of exercise you enjoy and stick with it
  • Invest in a good pair of sneakers to exercise in
  • Pick a time of day to exercise which works best for you and make this part of your daily routine
  • Set your own goals and track your progress
  • Anticipate barriers (fatigue, work duties, bad weather, etc) and develop solutions ahead of time
  • Team up with a partner or partners and you will be more likely to stick with it
  • Do not be discouraged if you miss one session. If you fall off, get right back on the next day.
  • Take a minute and appreciate how you feel at the end of each exercise session

Let us know if you need help getting started and best of luck!

References

  1. Blumenthal JA, Smith PJ, Hoffman BM. Is exercise a viable treatment for depression? ACSMs Heal Fit J. 2012;16(4):14-21. doi:10.1249/01.FIT.0000416000.09526.eb.Is.
  2. Cooney G, Dwan K, Greig C, et al. Exercise for depression (Review). Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;9:1-125. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub6.www.cochranelibrary.com.