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Exercise for Depression Rivals Drugs, Therapy

Best Results from 30-Minute Moderate Workouts, 3-5 Times Weekly
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WebMD Health News

Jan. 26, 2005 -- Imagine a depression treatment that soothed the mind and emotions, protected the heart and zapped away excess weight -- without side effects.

Sound too good to be true? It's not. Such a remedy already exists, and it doesn't come in a pill bottle, say experts from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Aerobic exercise can make a big difference in mild to moderate depression, say Andrea Dunn, PhD, and colleagues in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine's January edition.

The researchers found that 30-minute aerobic workouts of moderate intensity, done three to five times weekly, cut mild to moderate depression symptoms nearly in half. That's comparable to other depression treatments, say researchers.

Depression Common, Treatment Rare

In any given year, nearly 19 million adults in America have a depressive illness, says the National Institute of Mental Health. That's more than 9% of the population.

Many suffer silently, not getting treatment that could help.

Only 23% of depressed people seek treatment and just 10% receive adequate treatment. That's partly due to social stigma associated with treatment, say the researchers.

With that in mind, they studied a socially accepted antidepressant -- exercise. Studies have shown that exercise can help relieve depression, but no one knew exactly how well it worked.

Participants were 80 adults with mild to moderate depression. All were 20 to 45 years old. None were taking other depression treatments.

Fitness Makeover

The participants signed on for a major fitness overhaul. Before the study, they were largely sedentary, working out less than three times weekly for no more than 20 minutes per session.

Those couch-potato days vanished when the 12-week study began. Participants were randomly assigned to one of five groups to test different fitness strategies.

Two groups did moderate aerobic exercise. One group worked out 3 days per week; the other group exercised 5 days per week. They worked out on treadmills or stationary bikes.

The other groups took it a bit easier. Two groups did low-intensity aerobic workouts for 3 or 5 days weekly. For comparison, the last group didn't do any aerobic exercise. Instead, they stretched and did flexibility exercises for 15 to 20 minutes 3 days per week.

Cheating was out of the question. Everyone exercised under the watchful eye of fitness pros at the Cooper Institute in Dallas.

Exercise = Talk Therapy, Drugs

After 12 weeks, participants were rescreened for depression symptoms. All three groups had lower scores than at the beginning of the study.

The moderate-intensity groups had the biggest improvement. Their symptoms fell by 47%. In addition, depression had gone into remission for 42% of those participants, according to their depression test scores.

That's comparable to other depression treatments, say the researchers. They cite remission rates of 36% for cognitive behavior therapy and 42% for the antidepressant medication Tofranil (imipramine) - an older antidepressant -- in other studies.

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