Five years ago, after ending a long-term relationship, Anita became seriously depressed. It benched the once-physically active writer, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy.
She stopped running and began gaining weight and falling out of shape. It was not the first time she had been depressed, and traditional therapy had not helped her as much as she had hoped. This time, she sought out someone different. She found Jane Baxter, PhD, a therapist who was able to get her moving again, mentally and physically.
Serotonin acts as a neurotransmitter, a type of chemical that helps relay signals from one area of the brain to another. Although serotonin is manufactured in the brain, where it performs its primary functions, some 90% of our serotonin supply is found in the digestive tract and in blood platelets.
Baxter, who is based in Washington, D.C., has a unique background and practice. She is a psychologist and a certified personal trainer. When Anita showed up for her first appointment, Baxter eschewed the couch in favor of a treadmill.
"She’s a mental health trainer and a physical trainer," says Anita, 46.
That combination may sound unusual, but recent research shows that exercise may be one of the best treatments for mild to moderate depression.
"Every day, there is more and more evidence," says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John J. Ratey, MD, the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. "There are very good placebo control studies comparing antidepressants and exercise, and the effect on mood is the same."
In one 2005 study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise five days a week reduced symptoms of depression by nearly half after 12 weeks.
Although Ratey holds that exercise is an effective treatment for depression, that doesn’t mean he thinks that all patients should give up their medication or talk therapy in favor of working out.
"I’m not opposed to medication," he says. "And when someone is very depressed, you want everything going [to treat that person]."
Up and Running
Anita, who takes the antidepressantWellbutrin in addition to the talk therapy/workouts she does with Baxter, had always been accustomed to doing intense workouts. But, she says, "when the depression hit, I had no energy."