Exercise – maybe it’s not helping with depression as much as we think

I caught this post on the Brain Posts blog summarizing a research study about how exercise interventions can be used to help treat anxiety and depression. True, it’s not directly related to pregnancy. But having had some experience with post-partum depression myself, and frequently hearing how exercise can help with depression symptoms it seemed pretty relevant. More importantly, I was kind of stunned by a subtle conclusion that Brain Posts pointed out which also made me wonder…maybe exercise itself really isn’t helping treat depression as much as we think? Let’s walk through the study.

Post-partum depression

Maybe you’ve heard the term. Maybe you know someone who’s dealt with it, or maybe you’ve even faced it yourself. Forget about the wild hormone swings that come with having a baby brings…simply adjusting to a new baby can introduce a whole new level of stress and anxiety for any new parent. Bottom line it shouldn’t be a surprise that many new parents (moms and dads) have to deal with this condition. I think its fair to say that awareness of this disease has grown in recent years, but there’s still the issue of treating it. How can new moms and dads deal with this??

Let me pause first for a second and clearly emphasize before going further, if you’re dealing with post-partum depression please talk with your healthcare provider and seek treatment.

As it relates to this study, if exercise helps people with depression than a pretty logical next step is to figure out how to get depressed people to work out more. Enter the researchers!

Exercise intervention programs and depression – do interactive exercise programs help?

20120526-060556.jpgI recently wrote about a text-based intervention program called MobileMums that tried to increase the frequency new moms worked out. The idea there – if moms work out more often, they should lose more weight. The study at Brain Posts highlighted a different kind of exercise intervention program, that enrolled people with a) heart disease, b) depression, or c) both. As a “control”, a subgroup of patients from each of the three groups received a handout on exercise (woo hoo) and were referred to their doctor for any questions instead of entering re intervention program. All told then, we’re looking at 6 groups — two main groups either getting intervention or not, and three subgroups in each exercise group with different conditions.

The idea here – determine if a more interactive fitness program will help these people work out more often. The end goal being if people exercise more often, their conditions should improve. What’s involved in an exercise intervention? The researchers incorporated a personal training visit at the start, weekly check-in’s by phone, and access to individual and group classes at reduced rates. Sounds ok to me, but personally envisioned more.

I’ll leave most of the recap to Brain Posts, but the part below REALLY caught my eye:

Physical activity levels increased with the active intervention group in those subjects referred with coronary artery disease alone but not for those referred for anxiety, depression or those referred with coronary artery disease and anxiety or depression. Despite no increase in activity level in those referred with anxiety and depression, 12 month anxiety and depression scale scores did decline more in the intervention group compared to controls. The declines were statistically significant but relatively small in effect (mean change less than one point on both the anxiety and depression scales).

Hmmm. The MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY here for me was that people with depression who participated in the intervention program group DID NOT increase their exercise frequency, although their DEPRESSION SYMPTOMS IMPROVED. Brain Posts mentioned this, as did the researchers, but my conclusion would be that the exercise isn’t really the most important part here. Maybe just interacting with people is the more important part since control depression patients (the ones who got the flier and were sent on their way) did not have the same improvements in depression symptoms.

What does all this mean for moms and dads?

The first thing to keep in mind is this might not be generalizable to ALL types of depression. Let’s remember these people didn’t have postpartum depression, so it’s not entirely clear if the results translate. Does this mean depressed moms should stop working out? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Even if the exercising didn’t directly improve depression symptoms, there are other benefits. I think what this also means is that depressed people need to realize that just running or biking your way out of depression is probably not going to happen — at least not on your own. You most likely need to reach out for help. Finally, what this means is that an exercise support network may be important more for the social aspects than the physical ones. But if it makes you feel happier, what’s the difference?

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2 Responses to Exercise and depression – does it really help?

  1. Michael says:

    Excellent post. I think it speaks to the importance of group-based exercise such as group fitness classes, running clubs, or even team sports such as basketball or volleyball. The social interaction among peers cannot be discounted as a means of healing, and I am sure elevated comradery and even competition will have physical benefits as well. Good luck, keep working hard, and have fun!

    • admin says:

      Agreed! Sometimes running seems isolated to me, but there’s always group runs. Thanks for reading!!

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