More Evidence for Antidepressant Properties of Exercise
> 7/20/2007 12:24:51 PM

In a small-scale confirmation of long-held beliefs on the considerable benefits of physical activity, an Italian study determined that patients struggling through severe, resistant depression found great improvement through even limited amounts of regular exercise.

The study focused on a group of 30 middle-aged women who'd been diagnosed with serious depression and taken related medications for at least two months without notably positive results. Researchers separated the subjects into a control group who simply continued with the medicine and a group who attended one-hour group cardio classes twice a week. Women who'd seen very little improvement on antidepressants registered significantly better results after spending 8 months in the exercise program. Those who simply stayed with their medication reported, at best, minimally better moods. All patients continued taking their medications, so the effects of exercise in the absence of chemical treatment did not enter the equation.

While hesitant to recommend workouts as a substitute for medication, most psychiatrists acknowledge its restorative benefits and its reputation as one of the most effective ways to curb potentially disabling depression. Psychologists, whose areas of expertise focus on wellness and maintenance rather than prescription, almost uniformly recommend regular physical activity to depressed patients: this does not imply triathalons, as the simple act of walking for 30 minutes a day can make a huge difference. Of course, prodding the severely depressed to maintain or even initiate a regular exercise practice may be the most difficult step. But the Italian study could very well serve as a clinical demonstration of the fact that even the smallest amounts of activity lead to serious improvements in one's condition. Those who complain of a lack of time, energy or motivation would be well advised to consider this observation. Another largely subjective possibility: the social elements of a group exercise class can brighten the moods of depressive patients; indeed, the company of others may serve as incredibly effective medicine.

In an unrelated study, researchers isolated the neural pathway responsible for the obvious connection between healthy lifestyles and increased longevity. As the body ages, it grows less sensitive to the metabolism-regulating hormone insulin. Researchers found that mice lived longer when their brains were genetically engineered to reduce the activity of an insulin-regulating pathway, thereby slowing the development of their insensitivity to the hormone. Exercise performs the same function, leading researchers to the obvious conclusion that exercise heavily influences metabolism, encouraging high levels of physical activity, lower rates of body fat and more efficient cardiovascular functions well into late adulthood.

So we know the benefits of exercise and are increasingly beginning to understand their biological basis. One should obviously take care to use proper form even during light workouts to avoid damaging the body through overexertion or faulty technique, and exercise dependence can be a risk for depressive patients, particularly those predisposed to anorexia/nervosa or body dysmorphic disorder.  But the arguments against regular exercise simply do not hold water. One of the most popular - that the practice is a waste of time or that other activities take precedence - can be quickly dismissed by the repeated observation that physical activity adds years to one's lifespan while heightening cognitive functions and increasing productivity. For depressive patients, the choice (or lack thereof) is obvious.

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