Depressed? Exercise may help, experts say

Published: Monday, April 7 2014 4:55 p.m. MDT

Cheryl Allred lifts weights in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 27, 2014. Allred uses exercise to help cope with her mild depression and anxiety.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lonely. Like a you're in a black hole. Hopeless.

These are the words Cheryl Allred, 36, used to describe what her depression feels like at its worst. Most days, she says she deals with what she describes as mild depression, struggling to think through concerns and feeling overwhelmed by problems.

But she has found a way to deal with the ongoing mild depression.

"I've been able to manage it pretty well with just exercising," she said.

Mental health professionals have seen benefits from their clients participating in exercise, meditation or proper sleep as supplements for treating depression.

"In the middle of (depression), everything feels a bit darker and more difficult," said Anne Brown, a marriage and family therapist.

The use of exercise to treat depression — either as a supplement or replacement for medication — is debated among professionals.

One group of 95 adults ages 20 to 45 showed that aerobic exercise was an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, according to a 2005 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that exercise can help guard against the onset of depression and reduce some of depression's negative effects.

A study by Debbie A Lawlor and Stephen W. Hopker published in the March 31, 2001 edition of the British Medical Journal, for example, indicated there was not enough evidence to prove the effectiveness of exercise on depression.

A review of studies on meditation showed slight improvement in treating anxiety and depression with a meditative practice, according to a study published in the March 2014 Journal of the American Medical Association.

Salt Lake psychiatrist Dr. Ted Wander said practices like prayer, meditation, yoga, singing and exercise are important supplements for treatment because they help reduce stress.

"Those things are so helpful rather than just relying on medication alone," Wander said.

He has clients who have been diagnosed with severe depression and have trouble with daily functioning. This group tends to experience a more gradual recovery, so exercise is often considered after the medication takes effect and the client begins to see progress with talk therapy. From there, someone can gradually introduce exercise as an additional push toward recovery, he said.

He agrees with the Utah Psychiatric Association that exercise is not a substitute for treatment, but a supplement to treatment.

What depression looks like

In suveys conducted in 2006 and 2008 roughly 9.1 percent of people reported experiencing any type of depression, according to an Oct. 2010 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 3.9 and 4.2 percent experienced major depression and between 4.9 and 5.3 percent experienced other types of depression.

The same report said that 8.9 percent of Utahns experienced any sort of depression. Those who experienced major depression accounted for between 3.5 and 5.1 percent of Utahns, while those with other types of depression fell between 4.0 and 5.6 percent.

Depression occurs to different degrees on a scale, and severity is determined by the number of symptoms exhibited and the individual's ability to function, according to Loren Brown, a doctorate candidate in counseling psychology at BYU. He has been counseling patients with depression for three years.

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