Exercise shown to reduce symptoms of depression


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One 30-minute acute exercise workout can help reduce symptoms of depression, according to a recent kinesiology research study.

Maris Cameron

According to a recent study conducted at Iowa State, exercising for 30 minutes may help reduce symptoms of depression for at least 75 minutes post-workout. 

General studies about the relationship between mental health and exercise have been conducted in the past. However, researchers at Iowa State wanted to see how one targeted exercise session influenced the primary symptoms of depression. 

Jacob Meyer, assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State, took the lead in this process. 

“I’ve always been interested in athletics,” Meyer said. “During high school and undergrad, I got curious as to how exercise and the brain interacted with one another. I wanted to see how and why exercise improves our mentality and the ways we physically move.”

For the study, 30 adults experiencing major depressive episodes were brought in for testing. Participants came in for two 30-minute lab visits in which they either exercised via moderate-intensity cycling or sat for the duration of the visit. 

The following week, the participants came back for their lab visits and switched tasks. 

During lab visits, both groups were asked to fill out electronic surveys immediately before, halfway through, and directly after a session and then 25, 50 and 75 minutes post-workout. The questionnaires measured depressive symptoms and cognitive abilities. 

Researchers took this survey data to track changes in three main categories of major depressive disorder: depressed mood state, anhedonia and decreased cognitive function. Anhedonia is described as the inability to feel pleasure, especially from activities previously enjoyed. 

“This study led us to think about how we can incorporate exercise to help systematically treat depression for future struggling patients,” Meyer said. “If we can figure out what mechanisms are at play, we can have a firm foundation when trying to conduct studies in the future.”

Results of the experiment included participants’ depressed mood states being improved after cycling. Improvement levels of anhedonia dropped off around the 75 minute mark but were still lower than those in the resting group.

In a separate pilot study, participants that exercised before a cognitive behavior therapy session reported having stronger relationships with their therapists. Exercise, researchers found, preps the brain to engage in more emotionally challenging work that comes with therapy sessions. 

Meyer wishes to conduct a larger-scale study in the future to determine how positive effects can be prolonged for patients and amplify the benefits of therapy. Patients that emotionally connect with their therapists can potentially reach quicker recovery from chronic depression. 

“I would’ve liked to have longer follow-ups to continue the survey data at 90 minutes, two hours and four hours post-workout to see how long the effects lasted,” Meyer said. “However, keeping a person in a lab for hours on end is not practical.”

Meyer and his team continue to promote the importance of getting effective exercise on a routine basis as it may provide meaningful and long-term benefits to physiological and emotional health. 

“Mental health isn’t often viewed as an obvious benefit of exercise, but it’s just as equally, if not more, valuable,” Meyer said. “Exercise does more for the body than reducing weight and lowering blood cholesterol.”

Meyer and his team continue working on ways to boost the benefits of exercise. Students looking to participate in Meyer’s upcoming studies can visit this website to view a screening survey and find out more information regarding recruitment.