Science proved exercising to be an effective antidepressant

Science proved exercising to be an effective antidepressant

Cause of depression

Prior to diving into fitness related to depression let's try to find out what actually causes this condition and what are the standard treatments.

The new insight published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, suggests dysfunction in mitochondria - the primary source of energy for cells to lead to major depression.

"Until now, most theories about the biological causes of depression have focused on the idea that depression is caused by an imbalance in neurotransmitters like serotonin," says Dr. Lisa E. Kalynchuk, co-author of the review from the University of Victoria, Canada.

"However, antidepressants can increase serotonin levels almost immediately, yet take weeks to have a therapeutic effect on the symptoms of depression. This suggests serotonin is unlikely to be the root cause of depression."

To add, before new drugs can be developed, it is necessary first to understand the cellular causes of depression.

"Despite extensive research efforts, there is still a fundamental lack of understanding about the specific biological changes that give rise to depressive symptoms," explains Kalynchuk.

"What we do know that this process is metabolically demanding and requires a lot of energy. This led us to suspect mitochondria as the root cause of depression, as they provide energy for cells."

However, for today scientists agreed on the fact that precisely the dysfunction of mitochondria can lead to a cascade of effects which result in depression.

Fitness as an effective antidepressant

A collaboration between UT Southwestern and The Cooper Institute resulted in rather exciting research. The study called "Don’t let depression keep you from exercising" gave us an entirely new view on the problem of depression.

Nearly 18,000 participants took part in the study, so the results are ultimately correct. It was found that those with high fitness at middle age were significantly less likely to die from heart disease in later life, even if they were diagnosed with depression.

Depression of our days may ultimately impact health and mortality. That's why researches decided to highlight the importance of overcoming a common dilemma among patients: How does one cope with hopelessness and still find the motivation to exercise?

According to Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, co-author of the study and Director of the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care, part of the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern, maintaining a healthy dose of exercise is challenging, but it can be done. It just requires more effort and addressing unique barriers to regular exercise.

It is also worth to mention another published study "Fitness in midlife" conducted by the JAMA. 


Researchers used Medicare administrative data to establish correlations between the participants’ fitness at midlife (people who had their cardiorespiratory fitness measured at an average age of 50 years) to rates of depression and heart disease in the older generation. 

Among the findings, participants with high fitness were 55 percent less likely to die from heart disease following a depression diagnosis eventually.

Dr. Trivedi says the findings are just as relevant to younger age groups.

“This is the age where we typically see physical activity drop off because they’re not involved in school activities and sports,” Dr. Trivedi says. “The earlier you maintain fitness, the better chance of preventing depression, which in the long run will help lower the risk of heart disease.”

Exercise may be the more appropriate treatment for patients who suffer from:

  • diabetes, 
  • obesity, 
  • chronic kidney disease.

All of these chronic conditions are inevitably linked to depression.

Dr. Trivedi adds that the reasons behind this may partly be connected to the general health effects of physical activity, including the fact that exercise decreases inflammation that may cause depression. By reducing inflammation, the risk for depression and heart disease are lowered.

“There is value to not starting medication if it’s not needed,” says Doctor. “Being active and getting psychotherapy are sometimes the best prescription, especially in younger patients who don’t have severe depression.”

Moreover, he insists that there is a lot more justification in prescribing this antidepressant that will work and won't cause side effects.

How to convert exercising into a powerful antidepressant?

Director of UT Southwestern’s Center also gives a list of recommendations to boost chances of success:

  1. Set aside a consistent time to exercise every day, but do not get discouraged by stretches of inactivity. Resume activities as soon as possible.
  2. Keep a log to track progress.
  3. Vary the exercises to avoid monotony. Keep the workout exciting and fun.
  4. Exercise with a friend.
  5. Task someone with holding you accountable for maintaining the exercise regimen.

These steps are needed by the lion part of patients as far as previous studies showed that depressed people could often perform about three-fourths of the exercise they’re asked to do.

Future steps to solve the problem of fitness, depression, and heart disease

Dr. Trivedi doesn't want to stop studying this problem since he has already created the basis for future researches. He believes that large studies would help to further solidify the cause and effect among fitness, depression, and heart disease.


One example is RAD, Resilience in Adolescent Development, a 10-year study that will enroll 1,500 participants who are at risk to develop depression but have not done so. 

The study’s primary aim is to examine whether personal factors such as lifestyle and biology influence a teenager’s ability to resist mood disorders. But researchers will also document fitness levels and track whether depression and heart issues arise in later years.

“There is enough evidence to show that the effect of low fitness on depression and heart disease is real,” Dr. Trivedi says.  “But further study is needed to establish the mechanism by which this effect happens.”

“These new insights demonstrate the ongoing importance of fitness throughout the lifespan,” says Dr. Willis, Director of Epidemiology at The Cooper Institute and lead author of the study. “Now we know that the long-term benefits, and the connection between mind-body wellness, are more significant than we thought.  We hope our study will highlight the role of fitness and physical activity in early prevention efforts by physicians in promoting healthy aging.”

Exercise may be just as crucial to a depression patient’s good health as finding an effective antidepressant.

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