Can Exercise Cure Depression?

Alone or in combination with drugs and talk therapy, exercise is proving itself to be an effective treatment for depression, especially for women in midlife. Set off on your road to recovery.

By Laura Fraser

Running from Depression

As Maureen Gibson dashed across the finish line at New York City’s Fifth Avenue Mile race, friends from her running group, Mothers Across America (MAAM), cheered wildly. Afterward, they surrounded and hugged her as she wiped away the tears and sweat streaming down her face. At 58, Gibson had just run the fastest mile in her life — in seven-and-a-half minutes — and she was elated.

With her exuberant red hair, youthful freckles, and obvious energy, Gibson seems an unlikely candidate for depression. But like several other women on her team, she has had long periods when it felt as if all she could do was sleep or cry — staying at home, listless, fearful of everything. The worst was the postpartum depression that hit after she had her first baby, at 47. She and her husband were thrilled with the surprise pregnancy — after 15 years of marriage, they had long since given up — but after the baby was born, Gibson spiraled into an anxious, unshakable dark mood. "I knew I had so much to be grateful for, and everyone was so supportive, but I couldn’t pull myself back up," she says.

Her worst bouts of depression lasted on and off for eight years, despite psychological treatments, as she went straight from depression to perimenopause. In 2003, in the midst of one of her blackest moods, she saw a poster at her daughter’s school of a mother and daughter running — MAAM founder Charlotte Gould with then 3-year-old India — that asked "Do you want to run a marathon?" The idea of a mothers-only running group sparked something inside Gibson, who had been a runner years before. For what seemed the first time in months, she said yes to something.

It was tough for Gibson to show up for her first MAAM run. "I pictured a bunch of twenty-somethings, and I didn’t want to seem like Grandma," she says. But the other women — all mothers, and most over 40 — were supportive and understanding. From that first day, Gibson felt better. After several weeks, the sense of well-being became more than an afterglow of exercise; it was something she woke up with. "Physically, running got me back into shape; emotionally, it gave me stability," she says. Exercise hasn’t cured her depression, but it’s given her a powerful tool to cope. "When I’m exercising, I’m less prone to depression; when I’m depressed, it’s treatment for the problem." Just eight months after she joined MAAM, Gibson ran her first marathon.

The Sweat Effect

Although rarely prescribed by physicians or psychologists, exercise can be a profound means of preventing and treating mild to moderate depression. Numerous studies have shown that the more you exercise, the less likely you are to be depressed. Regular exercise (it doesn’t have to be training for a marathon) also significantly reduces levels of existing depression at all ages, though the effect is strongest in people who are middle-aged and older. It works equally well for both sexes, but because twice as many women as men are clinically depressed — 21 percent of us experience at least one major depressive episode — it may be twice as important for women to get moving.

Studies comparing exercise with psychotherapy and drugs show that, overall, it is at least as effective in alleviating mild to moderate clinical depression. (But every case is different, so you should always talk with a professional if you are depressed.) The effects of exercise are more immediate and enduring. "When you first start exercising, you feel a marvelous head-clearing relief and calm afterwards," says psychologist Keith Johnsgard, PhD, author of Conquering Depression & Anxiety Through Exercise. "After you’ve been at it for weeks, your base levels of anxiety and depression decrease. After five or six months, your base level of depression is profoundly lower."

Unlike medication, exercise has few side effects, except good ones: You’re stronger, healthier, and more likely to maintain a stable weight and resist disease. "When I’m talking to a psychotherapist who’s dealing with someone depressed, I’d say a high priority is to put the person on an exercise program," says psychologist Robert Thayer, PhD, author of Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise.

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