Exercise as effective as second medication for depression

Exercise as effective as second medication for depression

By Liz Lockhart

Exercise can be as effective as a second medication for as many as half of depressed patients whose condition has not been cured by a single antidepressant medication according to a new study.

Researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Centre found that both moderate and intense levels of daily exercise can work as well as administering a second antidepressant drug.  Secondary medication is often used when initial medications do not move a patient to remission. 

The type of exercise which is need is dependent on the characteristics of the patient and their gender.

These findings are the result of a four-year study conducted by UT Southwestern’s psychiatry department in conjunction with the Cooper Institute in Dallas.

The study began in 2003 and is one of the first controlled investigations in the U.S. to suggest that adding a regular exercise plan, combined with targeted medications, can actually fully relieve the symptoms of major depressive disorder.

‘Many people who start on an antidepressant medication feel better after they begin treatment, but they still don’t feel completely well or as good as they did before they became depressed’ said Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, professor of psychiatry and the study’s lead author. 

‘This study shows that exercise can be as effective as adding another medication.  Many people would rather use exercise than add another drug, particularly as exercise has a proven positive effect on a person’s overall health and well-being.’ Dr. Trivedi added.

The study participants had been diagnosed with depression and ranged in age from 18 to 70 years.  Their symptoms had not improved with treatment using a selective reuptake inhibitor antidepressant medication (SSRI).  The participants were divided into two groups. 

Each group received a different level of exercise intensity for a 12 week period.  The sessions were supervised by trained staff at the Cooper Institute and augmented sessions at home.

The participants had been suffering from depression for an average of seven years.  They exercised on treadmills or cycle ergometers or both.  They kept n online diary of frequency and length of their sessions and wore a heart-rate monitor while exercising at home.  During the study they met with a psychiatrist.

Almost 30% of patients in both groups achieved full remission from their depression and a further 20% displayed significant improvement, based on standardized psychiatric measurements.

Moderate exercise was more effective for women with a family history of mental illness, whereas, for women whose families did not, intense exercise was the most effective.  The higher rate of exercise was more effective regardless of other characteristics for men.

‘This is an important result in that we found that the type of exercise that is needed depends on specific characteristics of the patient, illustrating that treatments may need to be tailored to the individual’ Dr. Trivedi said.  ‘It also points to a new direction in trying to determine factors that tell us which treatment may be the most effective.’

Source: UT Southwestern Medical Centre  

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