A number of studies have found that exercise can have positive benefits for those struggling with depression — but a new study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has found that, combined with conventional treatments including medication and therapy, it does not.
The result was acknowledged to be disappointing by the researchers themselves; they noted that many patients with depression would prefer not to take anti-depressants.
BMJ Study: “Facilitated physical activity as a treatment for depressed adults: randomised controlled trial”
361 people aged 18 – 69 — all of whom had recently consulted their doctor about depression — were involved in the study and were all receiving conventional treatments. For eight months, a randomly selected group also received what the researchers called a TREAD (TREAtment of Depression with physical activity) intervention. This included counseling on up to 13 separate occasions on how to increase their physical activity, by engaging in moderate or vigorous activity for 150 minutes a week in sessions of at least 10 minutes. If that much activity seemed unrealistic, the facilitator encouraged participants to increase their physical activity in any way, regardless of the intensity.
While these individuals were found to have “good results in terms of encouraging people to do more over a sustained period of time – something which could have benefits to their general physical health,” the researchers did not find that they were less depressed than the group that had been less active.
As the study authors note, previous studies that found exercise effective in treating depression involved small non-clinical samples and used interventions that would not be practical in a clinical setting.
Exercise Certainly Has Overall Health Benefits, Researchers Note
In 2004, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) created guidelines suggesting that those with depression exercise for up to three sessions a week. These guidelines had been created following research available at the time.
One of the study’s researchers, Prof John Campbell, from the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, noted that the benefits of exercise can certainly not be discounted. He underscored that “exercise is very good for you, but it’s not good for treating people with what was actually quite severe depression.” Specifically, he noted how “that buzz we all get from moderate intensity of exercise” — the “runner’s high” sort of feeling you can get after a session of physical activity — is not sustained.
Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, a professor of public health at King’s College London who was not involved in the study, expressed disappointment with its results and noted some of its limits. For instance, the study did “not look at mild depression nor did it consider exercise as an alternative to medication,” but looked at exercise as an additional treatment for depression, along with medication. Maryon-Davis emphasized the overall benefits of exercise:
The message mustn’t be to stop exercising. Exercise has so many other benefits – it is good in terms of heart disease, lowers blood pressure, has a beneficial effect on the balance of fats in the blood, strengthens muscles, and burns up calories. A lot of people who have depression may have other problems too. And an active body helps to produce a healthy mind.
So the jury is still out about whether, in a clinical setting, exercise can treat depression. But it seems hard to dispute that exercise does have benefits for your overall health — certainly being in generally good health has some effect on one’s state of mind?
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