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Tracie Rogers, November 2007, Depression

Nature's Anti-depressant: Exercise

By Tracie Rogers, Ph.D.

With up to 10% of Americans experiencing depression at some point in their lives, depression is a mental illness that has caught the attention of consumers and drug companies alike. In fact, it is estimated that drug companies boast sales of over $10 billion each year and their ubiquitous advertising campaigns, coupled with our society's desire for an easy fix, have reshaped how depression is treated. A much less known fact about the treatment of depression is that since the late seventies, researchers have been examining the influence of physical activity on depressive symptoms, and since that time, research has consistently reported that exercise may be as effective in decreasing mild to moderate depression as more traditional treatment approaches.

With the high number of Americans who suffer from depression, the expense of traditional therapies and the potential negative side effects and unpredictable results of antidepressant medication, it is critical that treatment alternatives are available to patients. Exercise has been consistently shown to be a viable, yet underused, mental health treatment option. Additionally, unlike drug therapy, exercise has positive side effects, including increased cardiovascular health, muscular strength, improved mood, and weight loss. Exercise is also significantly less expensive than traditional treatments, and may even cost the patient nothing.

Furthermore, research has shown that it doesn't matter what type of activity patients engage in: aerobic exercise and weight-training activities have equal antidepressant effects. Additionally, the amount of exercise that has been shown to be effective is the same recommended amount of exercise for general health which is 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most if not all days of the week.

Although the beneficial effects of exercise on depression are well-documented, the general public isn't always aware of it and healthcare professionals don't always recommend it. Pharmaceutical companies spend significant sums promoting anti-depressant medication as the answer to depression, whereas no comparable well-funded industry group does the same for exercise. But fitness professionals can spread the word.

It is outside the scope of practice for an exercise professional to diagnose or prescribe treatment for any health condition, including mental health conditions. However, we can educate clients about the positive mental health effects of a regular exercise program and provide a supportive exercise environment. We can also encourage clients to talk with their doctors about including exercise as part of their treatment plan. According to research, many patients experience the greatest antidepressant effects from a treatment plan that includes a combination of treatment options. This means that using exercise in conjunction with medication or psychotherapy will be better than any single treatment used alone. Exercise professionals must continue to talk about the antidepressant effects of exercise and to encourage the mental health community to consider adopting exercise as part of their treatment programs.

The most important tip for anyone looking to start an exercise program, including those who are suffering from depression is to choose an enjoyable activity that fits into the daily routine. There are countless opportunities to be active, so it is important to find the best fit for you. Whether it is walking in your neighborhood or hiring a personal trainer, the best option is the one that fits into your life. The best thing we can all do is to keep moving our bodies!

Dr. Tracie Rogers holds a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology - a field that emphasizes the connection between the mind and body - from Arizona State University. She has worked with individuals and businesses on the management and staff level, helping them to become more organized, more focused, and ultimately, more productive. Contact her at