Exercising for half an hour may help people with depression feel better for at least 75 minutes after they work out, according to two new studies led by Iowa State University researchers.
This is what people have said: “A lot of research on the effects of exercise on your mental health, in general, has used very broad definitions of well-being.” It’s what “How can acute exercise, one session per day, affect depression’s key symptoms?” we wondered. It was Jacob Meyer, an ISU professor and the lead author of both publications, who said this:
For the first study, the researchers looked for 30 adults who were having major depressive episodes. In this study, participants completed electronic surveys immediately before, halfway during, and after a 30-minute session of moderate-intensity cycling or sitting. They also completed surveys at intervals of 25, 50, and 75 minutes after the workout. A week after the first lab visit, those who cycled came back to experiment again with 30 minutes of sitting, and those who sat came back the other way around.
Standard questions and scales were used to measure symptoms of depression in each survey. The Stroop test was one of the cognitive tasks that participants did. When they saw a word written in a certain color, they marked a color that corresponded to that word.
People with major depressive disorder have a depressed mood state (e.g., sad, discouraged, gloomy), anhedonia (an inability to feel pleasure from activities you used to enjoy), and a lower cognitive function. They used the survey data to look for changes in these three things (e.g., difficulty thinking, juggling multiple pieces of information at once).
During the cycling experiment, people’s moods got better over the 30 minutes of exercise and stayed that way for up to 75 minutes afterward. Improved anhedonia started to fade at 75 minutes after exercise but still was better than the level of anhedonia in the group that didn’t exercise, which was worse than the group that did.
Participants who cycled did better on the Stroop test while they were working out, but they were a little slower at 25 and 50 minutes after they finished working out, compared to people who were just sitting around. Meyer said that more research is needed to figure out why there are so many different kinds of people.
I like that these benefits to my mood and anhedonia could last for more than 75 minutes. Although a longer study would be required to identify when they begin to fade, the findings suggest that there is a window of time following exercise when it may be easier or more beneficial for someone suffering from depression to engage in anything psychologically or cognitively challenging,” Meyer explained.
He said that could be as simple as giving a speech, taking a test, or going to therapy.
In this study, half of the ten people who took part in the study exercised on their own for 30 minutes at a pace they thought was moderate intensity, which the researchers also checked with Fitbit data. They then signed up for an hour of virtual, cognitive behavior therapy each week. Before their therapy sessions, the other participants kept going with their normal daily routines.
Participants in both groups exhibited improvement at the end of the eight-week intervention program, but those who exercised before meeting with a therapist experienced more significant reductions in depressive symptoms.
Exercise could help adults with depression get even more out of therapy, according to the researchers.
To figure out the best way to help people, Meyer asked, “Can we combine the short-term benefits of exercise with the long-term benefits of therapy?”
We didn’t do formal statistical testing because there were only a few people. Meyer said the results looked good. It looked like people were interested in and would stay with the combined approach in the pilot study. The exercise seemed to have some effects on depression and a few of the ways therapy works.
One of them is the relationship between a client and therapist. If a person feels like they get along well with their therapist, there’s a better chance they will keep going to therapy and the sessions will likely have more of an effect, Meyer said.
In the pilot study, people who exercised before their cognitive behavior therapy session said they had a better relationship with their therapists. Exercise may be “fertilizing” the brain so that it can handle more emotionally difficult work that can happen during therapy, say the researchers.
The researchers said they want to build on the new studies in the coming years to better understand how exercise could be used as part of an effective treatment or intervention for people who have long-term depression.