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Exercise works like an antidepressant drug minus side effects: Study


The link between exercise and mental health is clearly established (Photo supplied)

Venu Menon
Wellington, January 19,2024

While antidepressants come with severe side effects, exercise is emerging as an effective option in treating psychological ailments, including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

New research shows physical activity can be one of the most “effective, least disruptive and cheapest ways of managing mental health disorders.”

The finding is all the more significant when seen in the context of the high failure rate, as well as side effects, associated with mental health medications.

Exercise and the brain

Researchers are learning that exercise profoundly impacts brain structure itself, especially those parts most affected by depression and schizophrenia.

They find even moderate physical activity, such as a daily walk, contributes to mental health.

“It’s a very potent intervention to be physically active,” says Anders Hovland, a clinical psychologist at the University of Bergen in Norway.

In 2016, Hovland and his colleagues surveyed published literature and identified 23 clinical trials that tested the effectiveness of exercise in treating depression.

They found exercise was on par with antidepressant drugs.

Brett Gordon, an exercise psychology researcher at the Penn State College of Medicine in the United States, says exercise offers several advantages over antidepressants.

For a start, antidepressant medications generally need several weeks or months to take effect, whereas exercise can improve mood almost immediately, “making it a valuable supplement to frontline treatments such as drugs or therapy,” he notes.

Gordon says exercise can also counteract some of the unpleasant side effects of antidepressants, such as weight gain.

Jacob Meyer, an exercise psychologist at Iowa State University in the US, notes exercise is free from the negative side effects common in drug therapies for depression and other mental disorders.

“Many people who have mental health concerns are not enthusiastic about starting a medication for the rest of their lives, and are interested in pursuing other options. Exercise might be one of the options,” he observes.

Heart disease and depression

In one study, 101 patients with heart disease were randomly divided into groups. One was assigned to an aerobic exercise programme, another treated with an antidepressant drug  (Sertraline), while others were given a placebo pill.

After four months, depression levels were found to be significantly lower for those who exercised or took the antidepressant than those who took the placebo pill. Exercise and antidepressant groups were found to be on a par in terms of outcomes.

Evidence suggests exercise also helps in treating or avoiding anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), and possibly other serious psychotic conditions.

But if exercise boosts mental health, the flip side is that stopping exercise can lead to depression and poorer mental health.

An aerobic class in session (Photo supplied)

Link between exercise and mental health

How exactly does exercise enhance mental health?

Patrick I. Smith, a psychologist and biostatistician at Duke University Medical Centre in Noth Carolina in the US, says the answer goes beyond the obvious benefits of exercise such as  cardiovascular fitness or muscular strength.

He says physical exercise triggers the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule key to the growth of new brain cells.

Studies corroborate this finding and show that people with depression have lower levels of BDNF.

Antidepressant drugs also increase the production of BDNF, researchers point out.

Exercise and schizophrenia

Studies indicate regular exercise may help patients with schizophrenia.

Vijay Mittal, a psychologist at Northwestern University in the US, found exercise likely helped bolster the hippocampus, the part of the brain linked to learning and memory, in high-risk teens who followed a regimen of aerobic exercise twice a week for three months.

But Mittal cautions that exercise is not a panacea.

“It’s really important to remember that these disorders are complicated. I’ve worked with people who exercise a lot and still have schizophrenia,” he points out.

Experts agree exercise spurs the release of certain molecules that connect brain cells, and possibly helps in treating mental disorders such as depression and PTSD.

Mind-body connection

Moving the body, or the habit of exercise, can itself be beneficial by altering thought patterns, Smith says. Exercise serves to focus attention away from a particular disorder.

But mental health practitioners face the challenge of having to incorporate exercise into their prescriptions and practices.

Nevertheless, there is an emerging consensus that exercise is an important addition to the treatment of mental health disorders.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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