“A lot of previous research on the effects of exercise on mental health, in general, have used very broad measures of well-being. What we were interested in, specifically, is: how does acute exercise—that is, one session of exercise in a day—influence the primary symptoms of depression,” says Jacob Meyer, a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University and lead author of both papers.
For the first study, which appears in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, researchers recruited 30 adults who were experiencing major depressive episodes. The participants filled out electronic surveys immediately before, half-way-through, and after a 30-minute session of either moderate-intensity cycling or sitting, and then 25-, 50-, and 75-minutes post-workout.
Those who cycled during the first lab visit came back a week later to run through the experiment again with 30-minutes of sitting, and vice versa.
Each survey included standard questions and scales used to measure symptoms of depression and several cognitive tasks, including the Stroop test; participants responded to the color of a particular font rather than the word itself (e.g., indicating red when they saw the word “blue” in red ink).
The researchers then used the survey data to track any changes in three characteristics of major depressive disorder: depressed mood state (e.g., sad, discouraged, gloomy), anhedonia (i.e., difficulty experiencing pleasure from activities previously enjoyed), and decreased cognitive function (e.g., difficulty thinking, juggling multiple pieces of information at once).
During the cycling experiment, participants’ depressed mood state improved over the 30 minutes of exercise and consistently up to 75 minutes afterward. The improvement to anhedonia started to drop off at 75 minutes post-exercise, but still was better than the participants’ levels of anhedonia in the group that did not exercise.
“Can we synergize the short-term benefits we know that happen with exercise and the clear long-term benefits with therapy to deliver the most effective overall intervention?” asks Jacob Meyer.
“With such a small group, we did not perform formal statistical testing, but the results are promising,” says Meyer. “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.”
One of those mechanisms relates to the relationship between a client and therapist. If someone feels a connection with their therapist, Meyer says, there’s a higher chance they’ll continue going to therapy and the sessions likely will have greater impact.
In the pilot study, participants who exercised before the cognitive behavior therapy session reported a quicker and stronger connection with their therapists. The researchers say the findings suggest exercise may be priming or “fertilizing” the brain to engage with more emotionally challenging work that can happen during therapy.
The researchers say they hope to expand on the innovative studies in the coming years to better understand how exercise could be incorporated into an effective treatment or intervention for people experiencing chronic depression.
Source: Original Study
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