Exercise may reduce major depression symptoms and help with therapy

Exercise may reduce major depression symptoms and help with therapy
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Exercising for 30-minutes may reduce symptoms of major depression for at least 75-minutes post-workout and improve therapy.

Major depression is a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest. It greatly affects how you feel, thinks, and behave with symptoms including feelings of hopelessness, irritability, tiredness, and anxiety.

The researchers from Iowa State University set out to understand the effects of exercise on symptoms of major depression and discover whether it improves the effectiveness of therapy.

“A lot of previous research on the effects of exercise on mental health, in general, have used very broad measures of wellbeing. What we were interested in, specifically, is: how does acute exercise — that is, one session of exercise in a day — influence the primary symptoms of depression,” explained Jacob Meyer, a Professor of Kinesiology at ISU, and lead author of both publications.

Studying exercise and major depression symptoms

The researchers recruited 30 adults who were experiencing major depressive episodes. The participants filled out electronic surveys immediately before, halfway through, and after a 30-minute session of moderate-intensity cycling or sitting and then 25, 50, and 75-minute post-workout. Those who cycled during the first lab visit came back a week later to run through the experiment again with 30-minute sitting and vice versa.

Each survey included standard questions and scales utilised to measure symptoms of major depression and several cognitive tasks, including the Stroop test; participants responded to the colour of a particular font rather than the word itself (e.g., indicating red when they saw the word ‘blue’ in red ink).

The researchers utilised survey data to track any changes in three characteristics of major depression: depressed mood state, anhedonia, and decreased cognitive function. They discovered that the depressed mood state improved during the 30-minutes of exercise and remained consistent up to 75-minutes afterwards. Anhedonia improvements dropped off at 75-minutes post-exercise.

As for cognitive function, participants who cycled were faster on the Stroop test mid-exercise but relatively slower 25, and 50-minutes post-exercise compared to participants in the resting group. Meyer said additional research is needed to understand the variation.

“The cool thing is these benefits to depressed mood state and anhedonia could last beyond 75 minutes. We would need to do a longer study to determine when they start to wane, but the results suggest a window of time post-exercise when it may be easier or more effective for someone with depression to do something psychologically or cognitively demanding,” noted Meyer.

He said that could include giving a presentation, taking a test, or going to therapy.

“Can we synergise the short-term benefits we know that happens with exercise and the clear long-term benefits with therapy to deliver the most effective overall intervention?” asked Meyer.

Researching exercise and therapy

Half of the ten participants exercised on their own for 30-minutes at a pace they considered moderate before taking part in one hour of virtual cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The other group made no changes to their routine before therapy.

At the end of the eight-week intervention programme, participants in both groups showed improvements, but those who exercised before talking with a therapist had more pronounced reductions in symptoms of depression.

The researchers said the results indicate exercise could help amplify the benefits of therapy for adults with depression.

“With such a small group, we did not perform formal statistical testing, but the results are promising,” concluded Meyer. “Overall, the pilot study showed people were interested and would stick with the combined approach, and that exercise seemed to have some effects on depression and a couple of the mechanisms of therapy.”

One of those mechanisms relates to the relationship between a client and therapist. If someone feels a connection with their therapist, Meyer added, there is a higher chance they will continue going to therapy and the sessions likely will have a greater impact.


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