Exercise Can Help People Fight Depression: Study

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A trip to the gym could be the best medicine for depression, according to a new study.

More than 1 million adults participated in a study that found those who exercised less were 75 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression compared to those with higher fitness. Researchers reviewed research data that suggested exercising affects the brain and body in a way that can stave off depression.

“The main message [of the reviews] is that people need to be active to improve their mental health,” said Felipe Barreto, an exercise scientist at the Centro Universitário La Salle in Canoas, Brazil, who was a co-primary author on the reviews.

Flickr Image Courtesy: Jeff Kubina, CC BY-SA 2.0
Flickr Image Courtesy: Jeff Kubina, CC BY-SA 2.0

The study gathered the most recent and best-designed studies for a new analysis on the links between exercise and its use for the treatment of depression. Researchers used past studies that relied on objective measurements of participants’ fitness instead of results based on self-reporting.

Participants’ mental health was also determined by standard testing at the beginning and end of the studies, another standard held by the researchers. The links between exercise and mental health among the millions of adults showed that the more a participant exercised, the more likely they were to be mentally fit as well.

Researchers divided the millions of participants into three groups, with men and women in the middle third group being almost 25 percent more likely to develop depression than those who were the most fit. In a different analysis, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, data was pooled from 25 past studies in which people with clinically diagnosed depression began some type of exercise program.

The studies were required to have a control group that didn’t exercise. The results found that exercise such as brisk walking or jogging had a significant impact against depression. Mental health tended to improve if they were physically active, the study noted.

A final review examined what happens to the body during and after exercise that could improve our mood. In the study published by Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, researchers analyzed 20 studies in which blood samples were obtained from people with major depression before exercise.

The samples indicated that exercise significantly reduced markers of inflammation and increased levels of hormones thought to contribute to brain health. Researchers did note that the studies were too small and short-term to allow for any certain conclusions about how exercise might affect the brain.

While it’s generally accepted that exercise can improve mood and mental health, one study looked at how different forms of exercise were effective in improving the brain in rats.

Published in the Journal of Physiology, the study suggested that hard exercise may not be the best option for long-term brain health. The formation of new neurons was found more in rats that participated in moderate exercise instead of strenuous activities. Miriam Nokia, a research fellow at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, said exercise like distance running could be beneficial.

“Sustained aerobic exercise might be most beneficial for brain health also in humans,” she said.

Tori Linville

Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.