An estimated 19 million Americans experience depression in any given year. For many of them, anti-depressant medications help but don't offer a cure. As this ScienCentral news video reports, one researcher is looking into how adding exercise to the prescription might make those people feel better.
No Pain No Gain
Becky Sands, a 55-year-old personal financial advisor, has been battling depression since she was about 18 years old.
"Some things happened in my life, a situational thing, and I really crashed," she says. "After that, one thing lead to another, and I had my ups and downs ever since then."
Sands tried medication in her mid-thirties, started feeling better, and went off the drugs. But her depression returned, and she went back on the medication. "I started taking it on a regular basis," she says. "Never forgot a dose but I still didn't feel right and I thought maybe I needed bigger doses. So I went back and the doctor gave me some more and some more and it still didn't make a difference."
So Sands decided to take part in a study at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center that is enrolling participants between the ages of 18 and 65 who have been taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, for eight to 12 weeks and are continuing to experience symptoms of depression. The study hopes to determine if supervised exercise will help people being treated with antidepressants to better fight their depression.
"A lot of patients who are started on these anti-depressants get better, but they don't get all the way well," says Madhukar Trivedi, a psychiatry professor at UT Southwestern. "And it is that group of patients, who are a little better but still have a lot of symptoms, that we are focusing on, that we think adding exercise would then enhance their original treatment and get them well."
Trivedi noticed that his patients often told him that they felt better on the days they exercised. "There is a body of evidence looking at people who are generally physically active, lead a good, normal healthy life, [and] seem to have lower rates of depression," says Trivedi. "Then we started getting interested in seeing if a particular dose of exercise really is what we need, or any kind of exercise is useful. So based on those two things we got interested in studying exercise in various dosages and in various kinds of treatments to see if it works for depression."
Studies have already shown that exercise can effect chemical changes in the brain, but Trivedi thinks the help exercise provides is two-fold. "I'd say that...in addition to those neurochemical changes, it does lead to this self-efficacy, where people believe they're actively doing something therapeutic for themselves. So it's the combination of both."
While the study is ongoing, and more research needs to be done, Sands has already seen some improvement. "I was severely depressed when I started this study," she says. "Taking the medication and exercising has made a big difference. The medication is like kind of a kick-start to help you get to thinking straight and looking at things in a brighter way. But when I added the exercise to it, it made the biggest difference in really bringing me up from being severely depressed, to feeling a little bit better, to bring me up to being mildly depressed. And I'm looking forward to the next four months to see how far it can go."