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Is Light Exercise Enough to Reduce Depression?

New research suggests that exercise of any intensity enhances mood.

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Exercise is getting more attention as a useful tool for improving mood. People who exercise regularly report fewer symptoms of depression, and clinical trials comparing exercise to medication or psychotherapy reveal a moderate to strong effect of physical activity on depressive symptoms.

The problem, of course, is that depression and inactivity usually go together, so going for a run or a class at the gym may seem like a chore when depressive symptoms are at their worst. Working out may sound like a good idea, but getting out there and doing it can be a different story.

This may have something to do with how we think about exercise. After a long period of depressed mood and low levels of activity, we may start to question whether we’re able to exercise effectively enough to feel better. Depressed or not, after a long layoff from working out, it’s natural to doubt our knowledge of how to exercise, our ability to be consistent, or whether we’re fit enough to exercise with enough intensity to make a difference.

It’s this last concern that seems to prevent many people from working out. The belief, “I’ll have to work out hard to feel better, and I’m not sure if I can do it,” is likely to lead to a sense of hopelessness and avoidance of exercise altogether.

The good news is there’s some evidence to suggest that, for mood-enhancing effects of exercise, intensity may not be as important as people seem to believe.

Recently, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Jacob Meyer and colleagues examined whether the intensity of exercise influenced post-exercise mood states in 24 women with major depressive disorder (MDD).

Each participant was exposed to four experimental conditions, each separated by one week. Three of the conditions included 30 minutes of exercise on a cycle ergometer—the other involved a rest period, a comparison condition, also lasting 30 minutes. The exercise conditions varied by intensity—perceived exertion of light, moderate, or hard.

The results indicated that, at 10 and 30 minutes after exercise, ratings of depressed mood decreased for all conditions. In other words, it didn’t matter if the intensity was light, moderate, or hard—depressed participants felt better after each bout of exercise. Interestingly, the results also found that participants experienced improvements in mood even after resting quietly, although the effect was not as pronounced. Bottom line—exercise, even low intensity exercise, can have an impact.

It’s important to note that these results demonstrate an acute effect of exercise, so it’s too soon to say that light exercise offers long-term mood-enhancing benefits, too. Nevertheless, the good news is that, a small amount of light activity seems to be enough to help people start to overcome the symptoms of depression.

Meyer, J. D., Koltyn, K. F., Stegner, A. J., Kim, J., & Cook, D. B. (2016). Influence of Exercise Intensity for Improving Depressed Mood in Depression: A Dose-Response Study. Behavior Therapy, 47(4), 527-537. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2016.04.003


Interested in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), self-help tips, and improving personal health? Connect with me on Twitter (@joelminden) or Facebook.

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