If Jennisse Peatick, 36, ever had to stop exercisingwell, the idea leaves her almost speechless. She doesn't know what would happen. "I started exercising because I was getting fat and I realized it was helping me deal with my ongoing depression," she says. Now the competitive cyclist and triathlete from Hillsborough, N.J., takes her daily exercise as regularly as she takes her antidepressant medication.
Exercise seems to be particularly important for some people. In a 2007 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, depressed people who were engaged in an exercise program recovered about as well as people who took medication. Both groups did better than a third group that got only a placebo.
What kind of exercise will lift your mood?
While regular exercise may be as effective for mild or moderate depression as antidepressants, there is a big catch, one that triathlete Peatick has figured out: It has to be intense, for at least 30 minutes, according to Madhukar Trivedi, MD, professor of psychiatry and head of the Mood Disorders Research Program and Clinic at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He has authored several studies that show regular exercise can reduce depressive symptomsin one case by up to 47%.
At least one German study showed that exercise worked in patients who had not responded to antidepressants.
Theories as to how exercise works abound. Dr. Trivedi has suggested that it may change levels of chemicals in the brain (such as serotonin), just as antidepressants might.
Exercise is good, but is it an antidepressant?
No one doubts that exercise is beneficial to general health and well-being, but Ken Robbins, MD, clinical
professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, isn't convinced that it can help anyone with moderate or severe depression.
He recently reviewed all of the exercise and depression studies, and concluded that while working out regularly is a great idea, it is hard for most people to comply with it. "Also, there are a ridiculous number of variables here. We don't know if it was the socialization, the light, or just getting these people out of the house that helped.
"Nonetheless, of the few things that someone with depression can do besides antidepressants and therapy, this is something we can tell them to try."