Should doctors prescribe exercise to treat depression? Yes, says study.

Rachel Grumman Bender
Writer
A new study highlights the important role exercise plays in treating mild to moderate depression. (Photo: Getty Images)

Doctors may one day prescribe a gym membership as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for depression — at least that’s the hope, after yet another study finds that exercise has a positive effect on people suffering from the condition.

The latest study, published in General Hospital Psychiatry, confirms that working out is not only a valuable tool for treating depression but that patients want their doctors to bring up the topic.

Researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan asked 295 patients receiving treatment at a mental health clinic whether they would like to be more physically active and if working out helped boost their mood and reduce anxiety, according to EurekAlert. The researchers also asked if they’d like their therapist to encourage them to become more physically active.

The overwhelming response to both questions was yes: 85 percent of patients reported that they wanted to exercise more often, and more than 80 percent believed that working out helped improve their moods and anxiety.

So could exercise one day be prescribed as a stand-alone treatment for mild depression? “Possibly,” Carol Janney, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of epidemiology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If someone has mild to moderate depression, it may make sense to try exercise first — while monitoring your depressive symptoms,” Marcia Valenstein, MD, co-author of the study and professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “A moderate exercise program has few downsides and benefits your entire mind/body.”

Adds Janney: “Although research in this area is limited, the findings suggest that exercise is moderately more effective in reducing depressive symptoms compared to a control or placebo intervention. In addition, studies have reported no statistically significant differences in the treatment response [reduction of depressive symptoms] when exercise was compared to therapy or medications.”

Janney notes that mild to moderate depression — as opposed to severe depression — responds best to exercise. “For mild to moderate depression, exercise alone has been shown to be beneficial in reducing depressive symptoms and may or may not be paired with therapy and medication,” she notes. “For severe depression, medication and/or therapy may be indicated with exercise as an adjunct to the antidepressant medications. I would strongly recommend that each patient discuss with their medical and mental health team the ‘best’ evidence-based treatment — medication, therapy and/or exercise — for themselves.”

Researchers on physical activity and depression are just starting to investigate the best exercises and how long the activity should be for preventing and treating depression, but in general, Janney says the national guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of physical activity, five days per week.

And mental health providers can help motivate patients to stay active. “Most patients reported exercise improved mood but had a hard time initiating and keeping with it,” says Valenstein. “Mental health providers need to be connected with supports that help their patients add exercise — either having these supports within their clinics or good partnerships with community exercise facilities.”

Based on the research conducted so far, it doesn’t seem to matter which type of exercise you do, as long as you pick one you like and stick with it. “Initial findings suggest that the influence of exercise on the depression symptoms does not seem to differ by type (yoga, walking, aerobics, weightlifting) or intensity (mild, moderate, or intense) of exercise,” Janney says. “This is good news, meaning that exercise, regardless of the type or intensity, benefits individuals experiencing depression.”

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