The researchers did note that patients who took the antidepressants (in this case Zoloft) saw their symptoms relieved sooner, but by 16 weeks the group differences had virtually disappeared. Medication can be a life saver for some in recovery and no one wants to suggest otherwise, but adding exercise to a regime that includes medication or incorporating it into a recovery program as part of overall mood management offers more choices to the recovery menu. “One of the conclusions we can draw from this,” according to psychologist and study leader Dr. James Blumenthal, “Is that exercise may be just as effective as medication and may be a better alternative for certain patients. “ While we don’t know why exercise confers such a benefit, this study shows that exercise should be considered as a credible form of treatment for these patients. Almost one-third of depressed patients in general do not respond to medications, and for others, the medications can cause unwanted side effects. Exercise should be considered a viable option.”
Depression also has a social side and people who are depressed, socially anxious, or emotionally traumatized may tend to isolate. Part of recovery, is to learn to make new connections and practice new relationship behaviors as we do in twelve step rooms. Dr. Blumenthal reflected that the structured and supportive atmosphere of the exercise program could have contributed to improving the symptoms of the exercise group.
Blumenthal feels that exercise may be beneficial because patients are actually taking a proactive role in their own physical and psychological health. “…Taking a pill is… passive,” says Blumenthal. He went on to say, “Patients who exercised may have felt a greater sense of mastery over their condition and gained a greater sense of accomplishment. They may have felt more self-confident and had better self-esteem because they were able to do it themselves, and they may have attributed their improvement to their ability to exercise. These findings could change the way some depressed patients are treated, especially those who are not interested in taking antidepressants. Although these medications have been proven to be effective, many people want to avoid the side effects or are looking for a more ‘natural’ way of feeling better.”
Kristin Vickers-Douglas, a psychologist at Mayo Clinic, adds that exercise is “not a magic bullet, but increasing physical activity is a positive and active strategy to help manage depression and anxiety.”
What Exercise Does to the Body
When we exercise, our bodies release certain mood-enhancing endorphins. Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. These feelings of euphoria, sometimes associated with a “runner’s high,” may contribute to our good feelings about ourselves and ourlives.
Endorphins also act as sedatives, actually diminishing our perception of pain. They are manufactured in our brain, spinal cord, and many other parts of our bodies. Not coincidently, the neuron receptors that endorphins bind to are the same ones that bind some pain medicines. However, unlike morphine, the activation of these receptors by the body’s own endorphins is less likely to lead to addiction, dependence or negative lifestyle patterns.
Exercise boosts the brain’s feel-good endorphins, releases muscle tension, improves sleep, and reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. It also increases our body temperature, which may have a calming effect. All of these changes in our mind and body can improve such symptoms as sadness, anxiety, irritability, stress, fatigue, anger, self-doubt, helplessness and hopelessness that are associated with depression.
“Small bouts of exercise may be a great way to get started if it’s initially too hard to do more,” Dr. Vickers-Douglas says. Though the research suggests that it may take at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, three to five times a week to significantly improve depression symptoms, any amount of activity, as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time, can still improve mood in the short term.
Regular exercise has been proven to help us: