Fact or Fiction: Can exercise cure depression?

I've heard it, you might have heard it, your mother might have heard it and encouraged you to use it for yourself or your kids- so, is exercise really a viable treatment for depression?

Two major studies, ‘Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?’ by Blumenthal, Smith, et al. and ‘Exercise treatment for major depression: maintenance of therapeutic benefit at 10 months.’ by Babyak, Blumenthal, et al., provide an evidence based answer to this question.

In ‘Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?’, the researchers found a wide variety of studies evaluating the efficacy of exercise on Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Studies have been conducted with adults with MDD with many different variables: exercise vs no treatment, aerobic routines vs resistance training, adults vs elderly participants. . . ‘Exercise treatment for major depression’ studied the effectiveness of aerobic exercise for adults with MDD. The study was conducted over the course of four months, dividing participants into three groups. The first group engaged in aerobic exercise, the second group took an antidepressant known as sertraline (its brand name is Zoloft), and the third group engaged in exercise and took sertraline.

After 16 weeks, participants’ symptoms of depression were found to be fairly similar in all three groups, which meant exercise was likely as equally effective as antidepressants. However, a follow up study which analyzed participants’ symptoms after 10 months found exercise to be a longer lasting treatment for relieving depression than the use of the antidepressant. Participants in the exercise groups were less likely to relapse into depression than participants who had taken the antidepressant alone. Of all the participants, individuals who continued an exercise routine, even after the study, were the least likely to relapse into depression.

What do these results mean for depressed individuals?  

These results mean that, for individuals with the capability of practicing frequent exercise, an aerobic exercise routine can be an effective method of combating major depressive disorder and deterring relapse.

Exercise can help depression.

Here’s the rub: depression is sometimes accompanied with feelings of low energy, irritability, worthlessness, and fatigue. Imagine feeling each of these symptoms and trying to get yourself to the gym in the morning, or during lunch, or after work or school. Teens and children who suffer from depression may have a difficult time getting motivated to exercise.

So what are some ideas on how to get your child or teen out to exercise?

You can:

  • Discuss the importance of exercise with them. You might even show them relevant studies- or this blog post if you believe it's age appropriate.
  • Encourage them to find a sport they enjoy and maybe even join a team to play. Sports can be a great way to be active and meet new friends at the same time. For kids with Learning Differences, feeling a sense of belonging is important. A sports team may be the key to this. If your teen isn’t interested in the usual sports offered at schools, see what other activities are available in your area. Quidditch, the competitive sport imagined by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, has now become a fairly popular sport among adolescents! There might even be a Quidditch team in your area.
  • Exercise with your kids! My mom used to take me to the gym with her when I was a teenager. It was fun to spend time with her and learn new things about the gym equipment I’d never encountered before.
  • Find an activity that suits their non-sports interests. Hiking is great exercise and comes with the added benefit of spending time outside, in fresh air. A family hike might be a great way to get started --- or even just a walk in the park with the family dog! For inactive kids, it's not a bad idea to start small.

For more ideas on how to get your kids to exercise, check out 5 Ways to Get Unfit Teens Moving.

For learning supports for children and teens with depression, you can visit Learning Challenges.

What are your thoughts? Do you have experience with depression and exercise? Have you seen improvement in your children’s behavior when they exercise? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below, or send us a message via our contact form. We’d love to hear from you!

Further Reading

Learning Supports for Teens and Children with Depression

Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?