There is no doubt that the practice of physical exercise can benefit people suffering from major depressive disorder . It has been seen that even a single hour of weekly physical activity could be enough to reduce the risk of future depressive episodes. Now, a new study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise suggests that there is an activity with long-lasting positive effects on the mood of these people.
Little is known about the more immediate effects of exercise on specific characteristics of mood and mind in people with depression, both during an exercise session and immediately afterward.
“A lot of previous research on the effects of exercise on mental health, in general, has used very broad measures of well-being,” says Jacob Meyer of Iowa State University in the United States. “What we were interested in, specifically, is how acute exercise (ie, one exercise session in one day) influences primary symptoms of depression.”
Chronic forms of depression are shaped by a variety of mental changes that make it more than just a feeling of despondency or sadness. For many, there is the loss of enjoyment and pleasure that come with depressive episodes. This symptom is known as anhedonia.
Cognitive functions can also be affected in depressive episodes, with memory and processing speed being reduced . These cognitive functions could benefit from exercise.
To learn how a workout influences changes in both mood and mental abilities, Meyer and colleagues analyzed various test scores of 30 volunteers before, during, and after a moderately intense half-hour cycling session , or a quiet rest session.
The tests included a questionnaire to assess current mood and feelings, a scale to measure anhedonia, and various cognitive assessments, including a test called the Stroop Color and Word Test. What was sought was to form a clearer profile of how the mental state of a person facing depression evolves throughout an exercise session.
In general, the participants experienced an improvement in their mood, which persisted for at least 75 minutes after finishing the training .
Feelings of anhedonia had also disappeared, although they began to recede 75 minutes after training. However, compared to those who had rested quietly, the result was still positive.
Perhaps most surprising were the variations in cognitive ability. In contrast to previous findings in healthy individuals, which predicted an overall improvement in reaction times, the results among this sample were mixed.
During exercise, participants’ Stroop test results were slightly faster. However, these results decreased at 25 and 50 minutes after stopping, becoming slower than those who had not exercised.
It’s not clear why this happens, or if it’s related to other symptoms of major depressive disorder.
The fact that there is an immediate improvement in mood and overall enjoyment after physical activity helps build a tactic for people with depression that could encourage them to exercise more. However, this is not as easy as it may seem at first, because depression saps motivation , which means that even the anticipation of the excitement of leaving the house and moving may not be enough to drive a change in habit .
Of course, in those who manage to take the decisive step, knowing that there is a window of at least one hour in which dark thoughts dissipate, could help them plan the day better because they would be psychologically stronger and cognitively better.
“The good news is that these benefits for depressed mood and anhedonia could last longer than 75 minutes,” says Meyer. “We would need to do a longer study to determine when they start to decline, but the results suggest a window of time after exercise when it may be easier or more effective for someone with depression to do something psychologically or cognitively demanding.”
Meyer et al. 2022. Magnitude, timing and duration of mood state and cognitive effects of acute moderate exercise in major depressive disorder. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2022.102172