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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Dec. 25, 2000 -- Claire Urmson began strength training several years ago to recover from an accident. To her surprise, the improvement she felt went far beyond her immediate physical problem. "I'm not somebody who loves exercise," says Urmson, 66. "But I really love the way it makes me feel."

 

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Indeed, a recent Finnish study joins a growing body of research in suggesting that exercise can have strong psychological benefits. Scientists surveyed 663 people in Finland, ages 65 and older, in 1988 and again in 1996. Over time, the intensity of physical exercise (defined in three categories: doing necessary chores, walking regularly, and exercising strenuously, in order of increasing difficulty) decreased with age, and this decrease was associated with developing more symptoms of depression. The researchers therefore concluded that a reduction in exercise increased the risk of depression in older adults.

 

The study did have limitations. For instance, circumstances that impeded exercise could in and of themselves be depressing, the researchers said. But many experts believe that exercise has a direct impact on depression -- and not just in older people.

 

"The findings are the same in elderly people as in younger people: Exercise tends to lower depression" and anxiety, says Daniel Landers, PhD, regent's professor in the department of exercise science and physical education at Arizona State University.

 

Some scientists believe that exercise may increase the concentrations in the bloodstream (and therefore the brain) of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, as do certain antidepressant drugs. Indeed, in a recent study of clinically depressed 50- to 77-year-olds at Duke University Medical Center, researchers found that performing regular exercise compared favorably in reducing depression over a 16-week period both with taking the antidepressant Zoloft (a commonly prescribed serotonin reuptake inhibitor), and with the combination of taking the drug and exercising.

 

Six months after the Duke study ended, the researchers completed a second round of interviews with the subjects to find out how they were faring. Remarkably, the scientists found that the subjects who were in the exercise-only group were far less likely to relapse into a major depression than either the group who had been on medication, or those who had combined medication with exercise.

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