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Prescribing exercise to help treat depression

Published on October 21, 2016 at 14:43 / Updated on May 3, 2021 at 20:18

Does taking regular walks help relieve depression? This question stirred the interest of doctors treating patients who were taking antidepressants but whose depression was not fully controlled.

Some episodes of depression can be stubborn. It can take quite some time before certain patients begin to feel better, even on the appropriate treatment. In order to increase the odds of a remission, doctors must sometimes resort to adding a second treatment to the initial antidepressant. Since taking multiple drugs can increase the risk of adverse effects, a team of doctors wanted to see whether another alternative might be to “prescribe” physical activity.

In order to test the effects of an exercise prescription, the team recruited 126 patients with depression who had been taking an antidepressant for at least two months, but still had symptoms of depression. The patients were divided into two groups: one had to do gentle aerobic exercise (the equivalent of a ten-minute walk) on a daily basis, while the other was to perform thirty minutes of exercise per day, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.

After four months of this regimen, while continuing to take the antidepressant, 29.5 percent no longer had symptoms, which is a remarkable result. The patients in the more intense exercise group had the greatest improvement in their symptoms, but more of them also dropped out of the program. It is therefore important to find ways to encourage people to persevere in their efforts to exercise.

A single, small-scare study (126 patients) is not sufficient to come to generalized conclusions. However, there is nothing to lose from testing this “treatment.” The side effects of physical activity – other than improving your mood – include reaching or maintaining a healthy body weight, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and other medical conditions, and improving overall health. Plus, you just might have fun! Happy walking, everyone!

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