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Can Exercise Help Cure Depression?

Article by Anne Elliott 

Depression is such a difficult thing for our society to talk about, though with more and more people falling pray to it, the stigma of suffering with it lessens and discussion becomes easier. In fact, in these dire economic times, more and more people have been presenting at their GP with symptoms looking for a medical answer. In mid July a story was reported in the press that the Office for National Statistics showed that doctors in England issued 39.1 million prescriptions for anti-depressants in 2009, four times higher than in 1991 (Telegraph 14/7/11). Perhaps it’s not surprising when we consider all the pressures most of us live under nowadays. But is there any realistic alternative to just popping some pills?

In the 1990’s at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) a lot of work was done in this area. One very interesting experiment involved taking 150 clinically depressed patients and splitting them into 3 equal groups of 50 each. A number of criteria tests were done to check the participants were all suffering at a similar level of depression.

The first group of 50 participants were given no intervention and were the control group, the second group were given only Prozac, a relatively new medicine at the time and heralded as a ‘wonder drug’, the last group were given no medication but followed a moderate intensity exercise programme,  6 days a week. The trial lasted 6 months after which all the participants were re-examined following the original criteria to see if there had been any improvements.

 Mental and Physical health improved with Exercise

The control group, as expected, showed little change to their level of depression and no significant improvement, the second group, who took Prozac, showed the expected improvement that had been shown by the manufacturer in their drug development research. The huge surprise was that the third group that did nothing more than a little exercise every day improved every bit as well as those on medication and in many cases even better. There was the added bonus that comes with doing exercise in that as well as their mental health having improved their physical health had improved also.

If you now find yourself in this predicament and am either thinking of seeing your GP or are in the process of taking anti-depressants, I would ask you to consider the above information and in fact act upon it either as an alternative to medication or as an adjunct. I think you’ll find your GP will be in complete agreement and encouraging to any physical activity you decide to do.

The biggest hurdle will be you. At a point in your life you need to find the energy to go and exercise is the one time you have least energy or motivation. It will be hard to do alone, so put people around you that can motivate, encourage and maybe even exercise with you. It will be worth it. You will begin to feel better and by taking control of yourself you will find it easier to tackle the parts of your life that have become out of control.

 Photo Credit: Digital Art


ANNE ELLIOTT is 52. She has a Personal Training Practice that specialises in working with middle-aged clients and their associated health problems. She lectures in Sports Science at Middlesex University, is an ABAE boxing referee, is registered with REPS at Level 4 and is undertaking a Doctorate in exercise in middle age. Anne appears regularly in the media talking about her specialisation - exercise in middle age.

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  1. Janett Brown

    August 3, 2011

    Yes this is absolutely true. Exercising is the best way not only to help cure depression. It’s also the best way to help remain young and energetic all the time. If you want a happy healthy life, don’t stop exercising.
    Thanks for this great post!

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