Exercise can benefit mental health, and for some people with depression it can relieve negative symptoms. However, even though exercise is supposed to help decrease depressive symptoms, depression can hinder some aspects of exercise, according to a study that was published in the journal Psychophysiology.
“A new study suggests that clinical depression may hamper the body’s ability to recover from physical activity, prolonging the amount of time it takes for a depressed person’s heart rate to slow down and return to normal after a workout,” according to a New York Times article. “Although it may sound minor, some research suggests that a difference of even just a few beats a minute during post-exercise recovery is associated with a shorter life span.”
Depression has already been linked to heart disease, so this study could contribute to an understanding of that connection, according to the article. Researchers don’t think results should discourage people with depression from exercising. Consistent exercise is still considered helpful for people with depression.
Some experts and people who have suffered from depression share their own insight into these study results and what it could mean for people with depression.
“I think this study can shed [light on] some badly needed compassion toward those who suffer from depression,” said Hadley Allen, a personal fitness trainer who has suffered from depression and recovered through exercise. “Instead of just saying ‘go exercise and you will be fine,’ we can learn that albeit ... exercise helps, clearly the toll that depression takes on the body is not limited to the brain.”
She suggests that when people with depression start exercising to help themselves, they should take these findings into consideration.
“People with depression should approach exercise knowing that the same patience they have with their cognition will need to be given toward their physical body post-exercise,” Allen said.
Elaine Campbell, a psychiatrist, author, a mental wellness coach and Director of Food and Nutrition at The Lu-Jean Feng Clinic, said in an email that no certain conclusions can really be drawn from the study because of too many other factors, such as the weight and fitness level of depressed and non-depressed participants.
“This [study] would probably turn the average person suffering from depression
off of exercise, which is the worst thing they could do,” Campbell said. “Depression is highly treatable and exercise remains one of the best ways to treat the condition.”
She suggests that people with depression engage in cardio exercise and yoga.
“I encourage my patients suffering from depression to spend at least an hour/day, three days/week to really reap the benefits of exercise,” Campbell said.
Joel Ingersoll, a licensed psychologist and certified personal trainer at the Center for Psychological Health and Fitness, said in an email that the exercise in the study (stress tests) isn’t necessarily reflective of how other forms of exercise interact with depression, and patients shouldn’t become discouraged from exercising.
“We may need to encourage patients to widen their definition of ‘exercise’ to include the potential to engage in physically beneficial activities that are more low impact such as yoga and pilates,” Ingersoll said.
David Reiss, the interim medical director at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, said in an email that the study doesn’t seem to provide any new information about the link between depression and exercise.
“We [know] that ‘depression’ is just that - bodily systems are depressed and generally slowed down,” Reiss said. “Thinking is slowed down, reaction time is slowed down, etc. Thus, it is not surprising - or anything new - to find that perhaps the body's recuperative processes are slowed down.”
There are other factors that could contribute to a slow recovery from exercise as well.
Exercise tends to relieve depression and distract the person in a positive way, but when the exercise ends, they may soon again become aware of their problems, which may cause an increase of anxiety and slight increase in heart rate,” Reiss said.
O’Connor, Anahad. Depression May Slow Exercise Recovery. Web. Dec. 7, 2011. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/01/depression-may-slow-exercise-recovery
Allen, Hadley. Email interview. Nov. 7, 2011.
Campbell, Elaine. Email interview. Nov. 7, 2011.
Ingersoll, Joel. Email interview. Nov. 7. 2011.
Reiss, David. Email interview. Dec. 6, 2011.
Reviewed December 8, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN