Would you trade your antidepressant for exercise?

Earlier this week, Time reported that at a research clinic in Dallas, psychologist Jasper Smits is experimenting with exercise as a treatment for anxiety and various mood disorders, including depression. If you've ever gone nuts on the elliptical, you know firsthand the soaring endorphin rush that leaves your mood better off than before your sweat session. But is a reliable bad mood buster effective enough to treat the serious symptoms of major depression?

Since 1999, numerous studies have shown aerobic exercise is comparable to Zoloft for the treatment of major depression. "But," reports Laura Blue "exercise trials on the whole have been small, and most have run for only a few weeks; some are plagued by methodological problems. Still, despite limited data, the trials all seem to point in the same direction: exercise boosts mood. It not only relieves depressive symptoms but also appears to prevent them from recurring."

Smits work is still considered "unorthodox," and in some ways we can understand why. For those who are or have been plagued by the debilitating effects of depression, the prescription to "get some exercise" could seem to trivialize a serious affliction. Furthermore, those in a depressed state are probably among the least likely to have the will to get themselves to a step class; in some cases, a depressed person can barely get out of bed.

Yet for those in search of a more holistic treatment to what can be a lifelong obstacle to wellness and quality of life, the idea of exercise as treatment for depression could be encouraging. First, there's the issue of cost: Americans spend $10 billion on antidepressants each year, and in some cases, side effects like sleep disturbances or changes in libido and body weight can be only slightly more appealing than the depression itself.

Secondly, researchers are wondering if, in some ways, the way exercise affects the brain's regulation of key neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine is evolutionarily hardwired. "It occurs to us that exercise is the more normal or natural condition and that being sedentary is really the abnormal situation," says University of Georgia neuroscience professor Philip Holmes.

It's a tough call. For those who have had success eliminating their depression by taking antidepressants, the drugs can feel like a miracle. Yet in our pill dispensing society, this study brings to mind the over-prescription of drugs, and whether if in certain mild to moderate cases of major depression, a course of exercise taken once a day would be just as helpful as popping a pill.

What do you think? Would you give up your antidepressant for exercise? Do these studies make you feel hopeful or worried? Does the idea of exercise as treatment trivialize the severity of depression?


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