Could Exercise Ease Depression as Much as Antidepressants?

Not everyone wants to take antidepressants -- regular exercise could be the best alternative

Therapists have been saying it for years: Getting some exercise can relieve the symptoms of depression, such as persistent feelings of sadness, irritability, loss of interest in doing things you usually enjoy and insomnia or excessive sleeping. Past studies have confirmed that over time, regular exercise can be nearly as effective as antidepressants, prompting the American Psychiatric Association to prescribe regular workouts as a viable treatment for depression.

Now a new study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice has pinpointed just how much exercise -- and what kind -- you need to feel some relief from depression and get a boost to your mood post workout. “There’s nothing quite like it for lifting your mood,” says Karen Lynn Cassiday, Ph.D., clinical director and owner of the Anxiety and Agoraphobia Treatment Center, Northbrook, Ill.

The researchers who conducted the study at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas have these recommendations:

Take steps to motivate yourself

One of the symptoms of depression is feeling like you have no energy, which can make you feel uninterested in doing much of anything. Getting out to do some exercise may be particularly difficult in the beginning, but these tips can help get you started:

  • First, remind yourself about all the benefits you can get from working out in addition to treating depression: improved sleep, more energy and better self-esteem -- even lower cholesterol and blood pressure for a healthier heart.
  • Identify what might stand in your way of exercise -- no time, no convenient place to exercise, procrastination or a fear that it’ll be too hard. Then come up with solutions to overcome them (a therapist can help with this).
  • Choose something you can do from home, like jogging, walking, biking or an exercise DVD.
  • Find a partner to exercise with. It’s harder to put off a workout when someone else is counting on you. Plus, the social aspect can be beneficial when you’re depressed.
  • Exercise first thing in the morning -- that’s when people tend to feel their worst and have the most to gain from working out.

What type of exercise works best?

Aerobic exercise is the way to go. One study found that after following a 12-week program, those in the aerobic exercise group reduced their depression symptoms by 47 percent compared to 29 percent among those in the control group (meaning no-exercise).

Choose a moderate to intense type of exercise that will raise your heart rate to 50 to 85 percent of maximum heart rate. “It has to be moderately intense to get the effects,” says Madhukar Trivedi, M.D., an author of the study and professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas. Try an activity you used to enjoy before the depression started, so that you are more likely to stick with it. “The best exercise is the one you’ll follow through on,” says Dr. Trivedi.

There are fewer studies showing that strength training (lifting weights) reduces depression. If strength training is what you'll stick to, though, Trivedi recommends a combination of upper and lower body exercises, completing three sets of eight repetitions.

How often do you need to work out?

This new research found that working out three to five times a week for 45 to 60 minutes is how to really see a difference in your symptoms. That may seem like a lot, especially if you’re just starting out, so you can build up to that amount. Start with 10 minutes a day for one week and increase your amount by five to 10 minutes a week, suggests Cassiday. Similar to antidepressants, it may take about 10 weeks to feel the full benefits of your ne exercise program, but you should see your mood begin to lift and feel more interested in activities after a few weeks.

To stay motivated over the initial 10 weeks -- particularly in the beginning -- keep a log of how much you exercise and rate your mood on a scale of 0-10 every night. You'll soon start to see steady progress, both physical and emotional, which will be great encouragement to keep going.

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