The last thing you might feel motivated to do when you're depressed is to run around the park or head to the gym for a workout. But research has repeatedly shown that exercise has significant mood-boosting effects in those suffering from depression and can be an important part of treatment.
While exercise alone often isn't enough to tackle depression, especially in people with moderate to severe symptoms, adding physical activity to your treatment plan of medication and/or psychotherapy can only help. And when performed with your doctor's guidance and at an intensity that matches your fitness level, exercise certainly can't hurt.
Is Exercise as Effective as Depression Medication?
Research suggests that the benefits of regular exercise can be powerful and comparable to those of an antidepressant for mild to moderate depression.
In a study published in the September-October 2007 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers at Duke University randomly divided 202 adults diagnosed with major depression (average age 53) into four groups. Two groups engaged in aerobic exercise three times a week: one group at home and the other in a supervised class setting. The routine was a 10-minute warm-up followed by a half hour of walking or jogging on a treadmill and five minutes of cool-down exercises. The other two groups didn't exercise but were given a typical daily dosage (50 to 200 mg) of the antidepressant sertraline (Zoloft) or a placebo.
Overall, 41 percent of participants achieved remission after four months of treatment, and the percentage of each treatment group that reached this outcome was similar: 47 percent of the Zoloft takers, 45% of the supervised exercisers, and 40 percent of those who worked out at home.
The placebo response was also considerable (31 percent), a reminder that some of the benefit of depression treatment—whether medication, psychotherapy, or exercise—is due to favorable expectations from patients and the attention that accompanies the treatment and being in a study.