Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
For many people, exercise is a whole lot more than just a way to make physical progress. And if you’ve been in the fitness space for a long time, you’ve definitely read about or experienced the many ways exercise can benefit your mental health. And it doesn’t take all day to reap the benefits of a workout — a pair of recent studies from Iowa State University found that even just a half hour of exercise might immediately alleviate the symptoms of depression and could potentially add to the benefits of therapy.
In one study, 30 adults with major depressive episodes were recruited to either exercise at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes or to simply sit. Before, throughout and after the session, they filled out electronic surveys with standard questions and scales to measure depression severity and other symptoms, including difficulty thinking and a lack of pleasure from things that they previously loved to do, also known as anhedonia. A week later, participants returned for a second session and switched tasks. They sat if they biked the previous time and vice versa.
“A lot of previous research on the effects of exercise on mental health, in general, have used very broad measures of wellbeing. What we were interested in, specifically, is: How does acute exercise — that is, one session of exercise in a day — influence the primary symptoms of depression,” Jacob Meyer, lead author of both studies and professor of kinesiology at Iowa State, said in a press release.
The participants who exercised for 30 minutes showed improvement in their moods not only during the exercise, but for up to 75 minutes afterward. Anhedonia also improved up to 75 minutes post-workout.
“The cool thing is these benefits to depressed mood state and anhedonia could last beyond 75 minutes. We would need to do a longer study to determine when they start to wane, but the results suggest a window of time post-exercise when it may be easier or more effective for someone with depression to do something psychologically or cognitively demanding,” Meyer said.
In the second study, 10 patients were included. Half of them exercised on their own at a moderate intensity with whatever modality they preferred, then signed on to virtual therapy for an hour, while the over half went about their days as usual ahead of therapy sessions. It was a small group, but after eight weeks, those who exercised before therapy saw more notable improvements in depression symptoms versus the patients who did not.
The size of the group meant the authors couldn’t exactly crunch numbers to determine the exact amount of benefit someone might get from using exercise in tandem with therapy, but the participants in the study reported feeling connected to their therapists more quickly — an important part of therapy’s effectiveness.
The results are promising, but Meyer raises a question that still needs answering: “Can we synergize the short-term benefits we know that happen with exercise and the clear long-term benefits with therapy to deliver the most effective overall intervention?” With more research, this approach seems promising to maximize the benefits of therapy for those struggling with depression.