Don’t Forget Exercise! When Discussing Depression

The Washington Post reported this week (“Antidepressants Can Be Helpful but Risky”) that the use of depression medication has nearly doubled since the mid-1990s.

The article mentions dangerous side effects — drowsiness, feelings of panic, nervousness, sexual problems, and thoughts of suicide or weight gain — but fails to mention this proven alternative method of treating depression: exercise.

We have known for a while now that exercise can be as effective or more effective than medication for treating depression. A 1990 meta-analysis of 80 studies on exercise and depression showed that:

  • “Exercise was a beneficial antidepressant immediately and over the long term.
  • “Although exercise decreased depression among all populations studied, it was most effective in decreasing depression for those most physically and/or psychologically unhealthy at the start of the exercise program.
  • “Although exercise significantly decreased depression across all age categories, the older people were (the ages ranged from eleven to fifty-five), the greater the decrease in depression with exercise.
  • “Exercise was an equally effective antidepressant for both genders.
  • “Walking and jogging were the most frequent forms of exercise that had been researched, but all modes of exercise examined, anaerobic as well as aerobic, were effective in lessening depression at least to some degree.
  • “The greater the length of the exercise program and the larger the total number of exercise sessions, the greater the decrease in depression with exercise.
  • “The most powerful antidepressant effect occurred with the combination of exercise and psychotherapy.” — “Exercise Can Keep Your Psyche Fit,” Psychology Matters

A September 2009 article in the Washington Post (“Running for My Life”) made this same case: that exercise can cure depression at least as well as drugs — and of course the “side effects” of exercise beat the side effects of depression medications hands down.

Yet The Washington Post and other media outlets tend to forget about exercise when bemoaning the escalating use of anti-depression medication, and the drugs’ myriad side effects.

True, it’s difficult to persuade depressed people to get off the couch and lace up their running shoes. Pill-popping requires less effort. But we need more medical professionals to prescribe exercise, and we need consistent media reminders that the path to mental health, as well as physical health, is through fitness.

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