Exercise can help alleviate both long-term and short-term symptoms of depression

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Two new studies by Iowa State University found that exercising for 30 minutes can reduce symptoms of depression for up to 75 minutes after activity and that exercise may help enhance efficacy of therapy for depression.

The first study, published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise and led by Jacob Meyer, PhD, assistant professor of Kinesiology at Iowa State University, studied the effects of exercise on major depressive disorder (MDD). For the experiment, 30 adults with MDD performed 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling. Researchers observed and measured the participants’ MDD symptoms and cognition through electronic surveys completed by participants before, half-way through the exercise, immediately after as well as 25, 50, and 75 minutes after the workout. MDD characteristics analyzed included depressed mood state, anhedonia, which relates to difficulty experiencing pleasure, and decreased cognitive function.

After 30 minutes of exercise, researchers found that participants’ depressed mood state improved for up to 75 minutes following the workout. The results showed improvements to anhedonia began to drop after 75 minutes after the participants exercised. Mid-exercise, participants showed better cognitive function, however 25-50 minutes after exercise, their cognition was lower than the control group that did not exercise, according to the study.

In a separate pilot study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry Psychological Therapies, also led by Meyer, researchers instructed half of the participants to exercise every day for eight weeks on their own for 30 minutes at a moderate-intensity level before their therapy sessions. The other half of the participants were asked to continue with their normal activity levels before their therapy sessions. The exercise group’s activity was confirmed by researchers using a smart watch data.

The results showed that both groups had improvements in their depression symptoms after eight weeks, however, the group instructed to exercise prior to their therapy sessions reported a greater reduction in depression symptoms.

"Overall, the pilot study showed people were interested and would stick with the combined approach, and that exercise seemed to have some effects on depression and a couple of the mechanisms of therapy,” said Meyer in a statement.

Together, these studies suggest exercise may enhance the effectiveness of therapy and reduce symptoms of depression.