"On its own, exercise does appear to have significant effects in terms of elevating mood," says Dr. Andrew Leuchter, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Physical activity, he adds, is often used to augment treatments such as medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. "If people are on medication or in treatment and haven't had a complete recovery from depression, exercise is useful in getting them all the way there."
That can prompt an upward cycle, inspiring people to return to work and connect again with friends and family, ultimately providing motivation to stay on course. Such connections are crucial for depressed people.
A physical change can instigate a mental change, says Vaccaro, director of development at Moonview Sanctuary, a psychological treatment center in Santa Monica. "When you're getting somebody to move and getting them to change a pattern in their life, just that little bit of pattern change can relate to a mood change, and they start to see themselves as a person who is active, not just a couch potato. They change their perception."
Activity is key
Exercise may be key in fighting depression, but no generic prescription fits everyone. Overall health and exercise history factor into what kind of regimen might be prescribed.
"If someone was a runner, I'd get them back to running," Leuchter says. "If not, I'm not going to have the goal of turning someone into a major athlete. I'd simply want to get them active, and even walking around the block might be good."
Those who aren't currently in treatment for depression should consult with a physician before exercising to make sure they have no underlying health problems. Patients who are on medication or in therapy for depression shouldn't consider exercise a substitute for either treatment.
"The key," Blumenthal says, "is really maintenance. You have to do it on an ongoing basis. You should find something you enjoy, but doing something is better than nothing."