Study suggests exercise enhances therapy for depression sufferers

Improving our understanding of the many ways exercise improves our mental health can have real impacts when it comes to treating conditions like depression, with doctors potentially able to draw on specific lifestyle interventions to lessen its symptoms. New research has delved into this relationship and turned up some early but valuable insights, suggesting that a single workout before a weekly therapy session can amplify its positive effects.

This finding came via a pair of studies carried out by scientists at Iowa State University, who were looking to zero in on the impacts a single bout of exercise might have on the mind. While the wider benefits of living a generally active lifestyle are known to extend to our mental well-being, the researchers sought to drill into this in the finer detail.

“A lot of previous research on the effects of exercise on mental health, in general, have used very broad measures of wellbeing,” said Jacob Meyer, who led both studies. “What we were interested in, specifically, is: how does acute exercise – that is, one session of exercise in a day – influence the primary symptoms of depression?”

The first study involved 30 adults suffering major depressive episodes who were made to complete a 30-minute session of either moderate-intensity cycling or simply sitting, with these roles reversed in a second session a week later.

The subjects completed surveys before, midway through and after each session, and then at intervals of 25, 50 and 75 minutes after its completion. The questions were designed to measure their depression symptoms and cognitive abilities, with the data revealing changes in their mood, ability to derive pleasure from normally enjoyable activities (known as anhedonia) and cognitive function.

Mood was seen to improve over the course of the 30 minute exercise sessions and up to 75 minutes afterwards. Improvement was also seen in the subjects’ anhedonia which started to drop off at 75 minutes but was still better than the control group. Improvements in cognitive function, meanwhile, were also observed in the exercising group, though these effects were far shorter-lived.

“The cool thing is these benefits to depressed mood state and anhedonia could last beyond 75 minutes,” said Meyer. “We would need to do a longer study to determine when they start to wane, but the results suggest a window of time post-exercise when it may be easier or more effective for someone with depression to do something psychologically or cognitively demanding,”

To explore this idea further, the team conducted a separate pilot study involving 10 subjects, half of which were tasked with 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, like cycling or jogging, before a one-hour cognitive behavior therapy session each week. The second group simply went about their regular activities, with the program taking place over eight weeks.

At the end of it, both groups showed improvements in their depression symptoms but in the group that exercised, the reductions were more pronounced. This group reported quicker and stronger connections with their therapists, making them likely to take more from the sessions and continue to attend. According to the team, these results suggest that a short workout before therapy may be priming the brain for emotionally challenging work, and amplify its benefits for depression sufferers.

“With such a small group, we did not perform formal statistical testing, but the results are promising,” said Meyer. “Overall, the pilot study showed people were interested and would stick with the combined approach, and that exercise seemed to have some effects on depression and a couple of the mechanisms of therapy.”

The two studies were published in the journals Frontiers in Psychiatry and Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Source: Iowa State University