Which Depressed Young People May Benefit from Exercise?

Which Depressed Young People May Benefit from Exercise?

By Jim Windell

          In the past, it’s been shown that some depressed young adults improve by engaging in aerobic exercise. But, what has not been clear from previous research is which young adults might benefit from exercise as a behavioral therapy.

          A new study from Rutgers University researchers suggests it may be possible to predict who would benefit from exercise as a form of therapy.

          The new study, led by Dr. Brandon L. Alderman, an associate professor in Rutgers’ Department of Kinesiology and Health, and published in the journal Psychological Medicine, confirmed the findings of previous studies that aerobic exercise helps young adults with major depression. However, this study found that reward-related brain activity predicted successful treatment response among young adults with major depression who completed eight weeks of aerobic exercise. Reward processing (or reward-related brain activity) reflects the response to rewarding stimuli or outcomes and the ability to process and then modulate your response to positive and negative outcomes, such as loss.

          Deficits in reward processing have been linked to multiple psychiatric conditions, including major depression, and may reflect anhedonia – the loss of interest in or inability to experience pleasure in cases of depression.

          In this research, 66 young adults with major depression were studied with a focus on aerobic exercise and its impact on depressive symptoms. Three times a week for eight weeks, some participants did moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and others did light-intensity stretching. Depression symptoms were reduced by 55 percent in the aerobic exercise group versus 31 percent in the light-intensity stretching group. Although aerobic exercise did not influence reward processing or cognitive control (cognitive control means processes that allow adjustments in behavior to help achieve goals and resist distractions), people with better reward processing when the study began were more likely to successfully respond to exercise treatment.

          “Our study needs to be replicated, but the precision medicine approach of predicting who may or may not benefit from exercise as an antidepressant is provocative,” said senior author Dr. Brandon L. Alderman. “We also need to know whether exercise has a similar antidepressant effect in younger adolescents and in adults with more treatment-resistant forms of depression who have not responded well to traditional treatments, including antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy.”

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