By Rob Senior
Research presented at the recent Psych Congress 2012: U.S. Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress suggests that exercise provides a unique effect on some psychiatric disorders.
Evidence was particularly strong in depression, where some cases show that exercise can provide as much benefit as medication. Some doctors are now viewing exercise not just as part of therapy, but as therapy itself.
“Above and beyond the standard benefits of exercise in healthy living and general well-being, there is strong evidence demonstrating the ability of exercise to in fact treat mental illness and have significant benefits on a neurotrophic, neurobiologic basis,” says Douglas Noordsy, M.D., director of psychosis services at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.
Dr. Noordsy was referencing a Duke University study of 156 patients with major depressive disorder (MDD), who were randomly assigned to one of three groups for a duration of four months:
- Aerobic exercise
- Sertraline therapy (50-200 mg)
- Both exercise and medication
After four months, the differences between groups were not strong. It was at a 10-month follow-up that Dr. Noordsy noticed a considerable difference in favor of those patients who had continue to follow their exercise programs.
“The patients who were independently exercising on their own after the treatment period had half the odds for meeting the depression criteria six months later compared to patients who didn’t exercise after the 4-month study,” he comments.
Evidence also suggests exercise benefits for people with anxiety and bipolar disorder. The related evidence is not as strong as it is for patients with depression, but considerable positive are present.
“We know that with anxiety, the heart rate goes up, you start breathing fast and that can trigger a panic attack,” Dr. Noordsy comments. “So one of the important positive effects of physical exercise is it allows people to become conditioned to having their heart rate and respiratory rate increased when they’re not associated with anxiety, thereby addressing the triggers.”
The greatest challenge remains motivating those patients struggling with psychiatric disorders to exercise and to stick with a sometimes demanding regimen. A few of Dr. Noordsy’s suggestions:
- The patient should choose the activity or program that is right for them, rather than a doctor recommending a specific activity.
- Motivational tools such as goal setting or entering into an exercise group can be helpful.
- Access to resources such as books or videos can help patients to see the benefits of exercise.
- Viewing exercise as part of human evolution may help patients more than just hearing a general recommendation to get some exercise.
“[Exercise] is something humans are designed to do, and when we don’t do it our bodies and brains fall apart,” says Dr. Noordsy.