Exercise steps up as depression buster

New evidence indicates that aerobic exercise, practiced either in a supervised group or alone at home, eases depression almost as well as a commonly prescribed antidepressant medication does.

Exercise achieved comparable results for patients with mild or moderate depression, says a team led by psychologist James A. Blumenthal of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. The study excluded people with severe depression, which typically includes lethargy and a high risk of suicide.

Blumenthal’s group randomly assigned 202 depressed outpatients to one of four routines: supervised group-exercise sessions, a home-exercise program, antidepressant treatment with sertraline (Zoloft), or placebo-pill treatment.

Group exercise consisted of three sessions per week in which participants walked or jogged on a treadmill for 30 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of stretching. Volunteers performed the same activities in the home program, with monthly check-ups on their progress.

After 4 months, depression largely cleared up in 45 percent of patients exercising in groups, 40 percent of those exercising at home, and 47 percent of those taking medication. The comparable results for the three active treatments contrasted with a 31 percent recovery rate for placebo patients, Blumenthal and his coworkers report in the September Psychosomatic Medicine.

The substantial response to the placebo—an effect seen in many studies of depression—suggests that beneficial effects of active treatments partly stemmed from general factors, such as patients’ expectations of feeling better after exercising or taking an antidepressant, the researchers say.

They recommend initiating larger studies to confirm the results and to probe for differences between the effects of exercise and drug treatments on depression.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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