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Exercise can help improve depression symptoms, study finds

Regular physical activity may also make therapy sessions more effective

Woman smiling while running on treadmill
Photo (c) Jose Luis Pelaez Inc - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Iowa State University explored how exercise can benefit consumers’ mental health. The study showed that regular exercise can help reduce depression-related symptoms and enhance the positive effects of therapy. 

“A lot of previous research on the effects of exercise on mental health, in general, have used very broad measures of well-being,” said researcher Jacob Meyer. “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.” 

Mental health benefits of exercise

The researchers had 30 adults with a history of depressive episodes participate in the study. Participants reported on their depression symptoms before a 30-minute cycling session and then again 25 minutes, 50 minutes, and 75 minutes after the workout. A week later, the participants went through the same survey process -- but instead of cycling, they sat still for 30 minutes. 

The study showed that exercise was associated with improvements in key areas related to depression. The researchers observed notable improvements to the participants’ depressive moods – such as feeling discouraged, sad, or gloomy – 30 minutes after exercise and through the first 75 minutes after exercise. 

They also noted that anhedonia, or difficulty experiencing pleasure during previously enjoyable activities, also improved after exercise; however, the researchers found that these benefits started to drop off by the 75-minute mark. 

“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.” 

Getting the most out of therapy

The team then conducted another short study to better understand how consumers can leverage exercise and their therapy sessions to see the greatest improvements to their mental health. Over the course of eight weeks, five participants exercised for 30 minutes before a therapy session and another five participants carried out their usual routines before therapy. 

While both groups experienced mental health benefits, those who exercised prior to their therapy sessions reported a greater reduction in depression symptoms. Participants who exercised reported feeling more connected to their therapists, which the researchers believe helped them dive more deeply into topics during sessions.

“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 in therapy,” Meyer said. 

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