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Depression Health Center

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Exercise and Depression: Expert Q&A

Robert Thayer, PhD, on how to make exercise part of a depression treatment plan.

Do depressed people have to exercise intensely to get a mood boost?

"No, it actually can occur fairly quickly. One of the things about our 'short, brisk walks’ studies really illustrates this point. People can think about ... how tired they’re feeling, then get up and begin to walk -- walking moderately, maybe quickly down the street for a short while. Immediately, they will begin to feel differently. As we’ve found with short, brisk walks of five to 10 to 15 minutes, there’s a significant increase in energy. They begin to feel it almost immediately."

"When people are seriously depressed -- with clinical depression, of course -- it may be not as efficacious as it would be for people in a normal state, but it still will have an effect."

If depressed people lack motivation to begin exercising, how do they get started?

"It’s a significant problem because when you’re depressed, you have no energy. When you think about exercising, you have no energy to try it. What I suggest is to start out very minimally, just getting up and walking a few steps or just down the street. Then as they begin to move a little bit, they start feeling differently, and they’re able to do some more."

Is the research strong enough to show a treatment effect? In other words, should doctors or therapists prescribe exercise for depression?

"Absolutely. I was giving a talk to clinical psychologists, and I mentioned that anyone dealing with a depressed person, an important thing they should do is put them on an exercise program. We often go toward various kinds of medications, but exercise is vital."

"Exercise should be part of a treatment plan for depression. The exclusive use of exercise for depression could be a problem for various reasons. But it should be part of an entire treatment plan."

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Reviewed on June 17, 2010

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