Updated: Nov 30, 2021
Which is better for treating depression? Exercise, medication, or both? That’s what a group of researchers at Duke University wanted to know. They also wanted to know, once the depression has been lifted, which most effectively keeps people from falling back into their depressive states. They published their results so you can be empowered by what they learned.
Below is a summary of how they conducted their study, what they learned, and how you can apply these findings in your own life.
How They Did the Study
They started with 156 adult volunteers, all of whom reported significant levels of depression based on standard psychiatric tests. Other criteria the volunteers needed to meet were: not currently in therapy, not currently exercising, not currently abusing alcohol or other substances, and no contraindications to exercise. They randomly divided the volunteers into three groups.
1) Medication only: These participants were given the appropriate doses of Zoloft, an anti-depressant that works by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Higher levels of serotonin are linked to an overall sense of well-being and happiness.
2) Exercise only: These participants attended 3 supervised exercise sessions each week. During each 45-minutes session, they warmed up for 10 minutes, rode a stationary bicycle or jogged on a treadmill for 30 minutes, and ended with a 5-minute cooldown. Exercise also boosts serotonin levels in the brain. In fact, it increases levels of a number of other mood-enhancing neurochemicals too.
3) Medication and Exercise: This group received the appropriate doses of Zoloft; and they followed the same exercise regimen as the “Exercise Only” group.
Results at 4 Months
By the end of the four-month intervention, the outcomes for each of the three groups was about the same. Roughly 2/3 no longer met the criteria for depression. In other words, exercise alone, medication alone, or a combination of both worked equally well in the short term.
But what would happen after the intervention was over? The researchers wanted to know. They educated all of the participants about depression and encouraged them to continue therapy on their own. This therapy could include exercise, medication, or both. It didn’t matter which group they had been in. Each participant could choose whatever therapy they thought would be best for them.
6 Months Later
The researchers contacted the volunteers again 6 months later to learn what they had been doing and measure the outcomes. This time the results for the three groups were markedly different. Forty percent who were relying on medication alone and 30% of those who had chosen exercise with medication had fallen back into depression. Only about 12% of those who had chosen exercise only reported any depression. Almost 90% of those who exercised regularly reported being fully recovered, a rate much higher than those who had chosen medication or medication with exercise.
What the Researchers Concluded
According to the researchers, one of the benefits of exercise is the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self-regard. Those in the Exercise Only group were more likely to incorporate the belief “I was dedicated and worked hard with the exercise program. It wasn’t easy, but I beat this depression.” Participants who relied on exercise and medication may have believed that they couldn’t do it without the medication. They may have denied themselves that positive affirmation that the Exercise Only group experienced.
What You Can Do
The Exercise Only group felt empowered, and they used their power to lift their mood. You can too. Find an exercise program that you enjoy. It could be brisk walking, jogging, hiking, swimming, cycling, rowing, or anything else that keeps your heart rate up for at least half an hour. Aim for at least 3 sessions per week. Do it yourself to clear your head. Use it as an opportunity to share an activity with friends. Join a group and make new friends. Do whatever works best for you!
You have the power to lift your spirits and keep them up.