A recent study in the British Medical Journal asserted that when comparing interventions on depressed individuals with physical exercise and without, there was no difference. This contradicts the suggestions of the medical world involving depressed individuals; exercise as a form of anti-depressant has been hailed by such respected sources as the Mayo Clinic and articles in the New York Times, as well as on Harvard medical websites.
The study selected 361 patients ranging in age from 18 to 69 years that were recently diagnosed with depression (The Guardian). The patients were also provided the typical therapy given to patients with depression, and were assessed 12 months following the beginning of the study. At this point, there were no differences between the two groups.
While one could theoretically write this off as a rogue study result, it is actually the first study of its kind. It is the only large, randomized study assessing the relationship between exercise and depression. All of the recommendations for depressed patients to exercise are based upon scientific hypothesizing, anecdotal evidence, and smaller non-randomized studies (The Guardian).
One editorialist points out that some individuals that feel that exercise made or makes a difference in their mood may feel self-righteous about the study, based upon the fact that exercise did help them. Additionally, the study had limitations or flaws in that one out of four of participants were already exercising and over half were already taking antidepressants (Chivers). The antidepressants may have been so effective as to cover up any additional benefit reaped from exercise.
Furthermore, it is a wide age range and perhaps could help individual within a certain age range dealing with depression. Alternatively, perhaps exercise actually helps comorbid diseases common to depression, like anxiety, that once helped by exercise, indirectly helps depression. Perhaps a study focusing on patients with both depression and anxiety would find that exercise was beneficial. While this study may be indicative of an overall finding for a very broad spectrum of depression patients, many individuals may find exercise beneficial (Chivers).
I find it fascinating that so many doctors, therapists, and medical institutions were exhorting patients to exercise when in fact there was no concrete, large-scale, randomized experiment proving its efficacy. While it may be that the benefits of exercising are in fact present, they may simply be minimal and hence were undetectable in this study. Regardless of whether or not the limitations of this study are too large to accept the results, the study does demonstrate the need for larger randomized studies with better methodologies in order to better establish whether or not exercise benefits individuals struggling with depression.
At the urging of different rehabilitation centers, I have tried exercise to benefit my mood, and it never had much of an effect. I told them that, and they always told me to keep doing it. The first few times, I exercised for months, but truth be told, it does not help me. I appreciate these results, because I know that for me exercise has little to do with it and that medical professionals always insisted that I was not exercising hard enough or long enough. Dr. Pete Etchells pointed out that it is a personal thing what helps our depression. Whether exercise or chocolate, once we have found it that is great. Ultimately though, we need these unbiased, randomized scientific evaluations in order to determine policy for government and treatment facilities.
Chivers, Tom. The Telegraph. 7 June 2012. Website. 6 June 2012.
The Guardian. The Guardian. 6 June 2012. website. 11 June 2012.
The Press Association. Nursing Times. 6 June 2012. internet. 6 June 2012.