Exercising out of Depression

With the diagnosis of depression, it may seem that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Loss of interest in daily activities, feelings of hopelessness, reduced appetite and deprived sleep are some of the prominent symptoms that can permeate every aspect of one’s life. Fortunately, recent advancements in science have concluded that there is a way to help. Psych Central (2016), a psychology journal, reports that regular exercise can significantly improve the mood of people with mild to moderate depression and it can play a supporting role in alleviating severe depression.

To examine this, the team of researchers at the University of California Davis studied 38 healthy volunteers, who were asked to exercise on a stationary bicycle until their heart rate reached 85% of their predicted maximum heart rate.

Results showed increases in two critical neurotransmitters — glutamate and gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA). These neurotransmitters facilitate communication between brain cells that control emotional and physical health. To further measure these neurotransmitters, the researchers conducted a series of imaging studies with a 3-tesla MRI to detect nuclear magnetic resonance spectra, which can identify several compounds based on the magnetic behaviour of hydrogen atoms in molecules. GABA and Glutamate levels were measured in two different parts of the brain before and after three rounds of intense exercise sessions that lasted between 8–20 minutes. A control group was used that did not do any exercise. Results showed that glutamate and GABA levels increased for participants who exercised and did not show improvements in the non-exercisers. These increases were found in the visual cortex, a visual information processor, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which regulates emotions, cognitive functions and heart rate.

I found this study to be extremely interesting and shed light on the important topic of mental health. Although it could not conclude any causation, it does determine correlation. The researcher notes, “There was a correlation between the resting levels of glutamate in the brain and how much people exercised during the preceding week. In addition, this study seems reliable because the three trials showed the same beneficial use of exercise, and the activated brain areas were consistent. Although it shows good internal validity with the repeated trials and control group, it does not show good external validity. It seem like there could be been many factors that might prevent the results from being generalized to the population. For example, the size of the sample was small and the demographics of the sample were unclear. In addition, just because cycling helped depression, the study cannot conclude that other types of exercise, a very broad category, may have the same results. This is evident because the research himself says, “It’s preliminary information, but it’s very encouraging.”

Overall, these results are beneficial because it highlights how exercise can be used as an alternative treatment for depression. In addition, it can benefit everyone because exercise can come in so many various forms, such as tennis, working out and swimming.This could maximally benefit patients under the age of 25, who usually have more side effects from SSRISs, antidepressant medications that change neurotransmitter levels.

In the future, researchers should use similar methodology to test if less intense forms of exercise such as walking have similar benefits.


Wood, J. (2016). Hard Exercise Can Boost Brain Chemicals Sapped by Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 14, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2016/02/28/people-who-exercise-have-better-mental-fitness/99703.html

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