A study of adults suffering from depression has found that regular exercise is just as effective as medication for improving symptoms.
The new research by psychologists at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, supports other studies which have suggested that exercise can ease the symptoms of depression but critics have said more concrete proof was needed in the form of a comparison with a placebo.
This latest research has done just that by dividing 153 women and 49 men, diagnosed with major depression into four groups; one group were given group-based aerobic exercise therapy, another were treated with an antidepressant drug, a third group performed home-based aerobic exercises, while a fourth group received a placebo which looked identical to the antidepressant sertraline (Zoloft).
The researchers found after 16 weeks that all three groups did better than the placebo group, but 47 percent of patients on the antidepressant no longer met the criteria for major depression and the same was true of 45 percent of those in the supervised exercise group.
Some improvement was also seen in the placebo group which suggests they benefited from the ongoing symptom monitoring and the attention they received.
Dr. James A. Blumenthal, a professor of medical psychology who led the research, says the study has demonstrated that exercise does have an effect on depression.
Dr. Blumenthal says there is growing evidence that exercise may be a viable alternative to medication, at least among those patients who are receptive to exercise as a potential treatment for their depression.
Experts believe exercise may improve depression because physical activity appears to affect some important nervous system chemicals such as norepinephrine and serotonin, as well as brain neurotrophins, which help protect nerve cells from injury and transmit signals in brain regions related to mood.
Exercise also enhances feelings of self-efficacy and encourages positive thinking and the social aspect of group exercise is also thought to confer benefits.
The study is published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.