Yes, you can exercise instead of taking antidepressants says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC, FAPA
There are many mothers who resist treating their depression because they do not want to take medications. The good news is that they don’t have to take medications. Exercise can treat even major depression. Yes, you can exercise instead of taking antidepressants. Traditionally, exercise has been recommended for people with mild-to-moderate depression. But clinical trials that compared exercise to antidepressants found that exercise was as effective in treating major depression as medications. Exercise can also be safely combined with other modalities.
Exercise as an antidepressant
Two randomized clinical trials from the Duke University Medical School compared the effectiveness of exercise vs. Zoloft (sertraline). In Babyak et al.’s study (Babyak et al., 2000), depressed older adults were randomly assigned to one of three groups: exercise alone; Zoloft (sertraline) alone; or a combination of exercise and sertraline. After four months, all the patients improved, and there were no differences between the groups. People in the exercise-only group did as well as people in the two medication groups. In addition, people in the exercise-only group were significantly less likely to relapse. Six months after completion of treatment, 28% of the exercise-only group became depressed again vs. 51% of the medications-only and medications-exercise groups. The authors concluded that exercise is an effective intervention, even in patients with major depression. Moreover, exercise helps prevent relapse.
This same group of researchers replicated their findings in 2007 (Blumenthal et al., 2007). In the 2007 study, 202 adults with major depression were randomized to one of four conditions: sertraline, exercise at home, supervised exercise, or a placebo control. After four months of treatment, 41% of the patients were in remission and no longer met the criteria for major depression. Efficacy rates by treatment were as follows: supervised exercise=45%, home-based exercise=40%, medication=47%, and placebo=31%. The exercise condition was 45 minutes of walking on a treadmill at 70% to 85% maximum heart rate capacity, three times a week, for 16 weeks. The home-exercise group received the same instructions, but was not supervised and had minimal contact with the research staff. The authors concluded that exercise was as effective as medications. The supervised program was especially effective, but the home program was also comparable to medications. And all treatments were more effective than the placebo.
A Cochrane review of 37 studies found that exercise was an effective treatment for depression (Cooney et al., 2013). It was as effective as psychotherapy in seven trials, and as effective as medications in four trials.
|Exercise to achieve an antidepressant effect|
|For mild-to-moderate depression||For major depression|
|Frequency||2 to 3 times a week||3 to 5 times a week|
|Intensity||moderate||60% to 85% maximum capacity|
|Duration||20 to 30 minutes||45 to 60 minutes|
Resistance yoga or pilates can be recommended at least twice a week.
Exercise for postpartum women
A study of 28 women from Taipei at 2 to 6 months postpartum enrolled participants in a program of yoga and pilates for 12 weeks (Ko, Yang, Fang, Lee, & Lin, 2013). Women in the high-depression group showed a significant decrease in depression. Similarly, a study of 62 mothers were enrolled in an 8-week program of exercise and parenting education, and 73 mothers were enrolled in education only (Norman, Sherburn, Osborne, & Galea, 2010). Mothers in the exercise/education group had significantly lower depression and higher well-being than the education-only group. For those at risk for depression, it reduced the risk by 50%.
One way that exercise might reduce depressive symptoms is through its impact on self-efficacy. A randomized trial included 38 women with postpartum depression and found that there was no significant difference in exercise rates between the groups, and no significant decrease in depression (Daley, Winter, Grimmett, McGuinness, McManus, & MacArthur, 2008). However, self-efficacy did increase in the exercise group.
Most previous studies of exercise and depression have used aerobic exercise. But a recent study compared resistance training to flexibility training for a group of 60 postpartum women (LeCheminant et al., 2012). Resistance training twice a week significantly decreased depressive symptoms. There was no significant change for flexibility or wait-list conditions.
A review of 17 studies of postpartum depression and exercise found that leisure-time physical activity decreased postpartum depressive symptoms (Teychenne & York, 2013). The fact that exercise is defined as “leisure-time activity” might be key to understanding these findings. The study of 550 women in North Carolina, who were part of the Pregnancy, Infection, and Nutrition (PIN) Postpartum Study, found that if activity is fun, it’s associated with lower levels of inflammation. If the activity is not fun (such as exercise that takes place as part of a job or caregiving), it actually increases inflammation (Demissie et al., 2011).
Exercise is also anti-inflammatory
One reason why exercise works as a treatment for depression is because it lowers inflammation. People who exercise have lower inflammatory biomarkers than people who are sedentary (Kiecolt-Glaser, Derry, & Fagundes, 2015). Chronic inflammation affects the body’s composition and metabolism in several ways, including the loss of body protein and the accretion of fat (Roubenoff, 2003). For example, cachexia, or loss of lean muscle mass, is at least partially mediated by the proinflammatory cytokines [cytokines are secreted proteins released by cells that have a specific effect on the interaction and communication between cells].
Exercise and breastfeeding
While the above-cited studies indicate that exercise is helpful in treating depression, mothers may be concerned that exercising will negatively impact breastfeeding. Only a few studies have specifically addressed this topic. These studies have generally observed that exercise had no negative effects on breastfeeding. For example, a Cochrane review found that neither diet nor exercise for weight loss appeared to impact breastfeeding adversely (Amorin, Linne, & Lourenco, 2006). However, the authors noted that there was very little research on this topic, and that more information was needed before they could say that for certain.
In a qualitative study, six Australian mothers perceived that exercise had reduced their milk supply, although this was not independently confirmed (Rich, Currie, & McMahon, 2004). These same women reported that exercise reduced their stress, improved weight control and energy, and enhanced the mother-child relationship. Another Australian study (Su, Zhao, Binna, Scott, & Oddy, 2007) examined the relationship between mothers’ exercise, initiation and duration of breastfeeding, and exercise’s effect on infant growth. The participants were 587 mothers recruited at the time of giving birth. Mothers were interviewed seven times over a period of 12 months. At 6 to 12 months, exercise had not decreased breastfeeding duration. At 12 months, exercise had no significant impact on infants’ growth. This applied to both women who were fully breastfeeding, and those who did “any” amount of breastfeeding. The researchers concluded that their study should reassure health care providers that exercise while breastfeeding is safe and important for maintaining health.
Those studies demonstrate that exercise is generally safe for breastfeeding mothers. A more specific question regarding exercise and breastfeeding has to do with lactic acid. Does exercise cause lactic acid to build up in mothers’ milk so that babies won’t breastfeed or refuse to take it? A study of 12 lactating women sought to answer this question (Quinn & Carey, 1999). In this study, milk and blood samples were taken after a non-exercise session (control), after maximal exercise, and after a session that was 20% below the maximal range. They found that in women with an adequate maternal caloric intake, moderate exercise did not increase lactic acid in breast milk nor cause babies to reject it. When women exercised in the “hard” range (using the perceived-exertion scale), lactic acid increased. The authors recommended exercise in a moderate range because it neither increases lactic acid accumulation in the breast milk nor alters babies’ willingness to breastfeed.
Exercise is a highly effective treatment for depression—alone or in combination with other treatments. It appears to have no negative effect on breastfeeding. And it can be a viable alternative treatment for mothers who don’t want to take medications.
The one challenge with exercise is doing it. When people are depressed, it is probably the last thing they feel like doing. But they may be motivated to try when they realize it’s an effective alternative to medications. Blumenthal et al., 2007 found a slightly higher remission rate in the supervised vs. at-home exercise groups, likely because compliance rates were higher. A similar approach, perhaps involving a mothers’ exercise group, may be useful for mothers who want to give this modality a try. Exercise in a group setting may also provide another useful function: social support, which can also help prevent depression or keep it from recurring.
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Blumenthal, J. A., Babyak, M. A., Doraiswamy, P. M., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B. M., Barbour, K. A., … Sherwood, A. (2007). Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(7), 587–596. doi:10.1097/psy.0b013e318148c19a
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Daley, A. J., Winter, H., Grimmett, C., McGuinness, M., McManus, R., & MacArthur, C. (2008). Feasibility of an exercise intervention for women with postnatal depression: a pilot randomised controlled trial. British Journal of General Practice, 58(548), 178–183. doi:10.3399/bjgp08x277195
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Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Derry, H. M., & Fagundes, C. P. (2015). Inflammation: Depression fans the flames and feasts on the heat. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(11), 1075–1091. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15020152
Ko, Y.-L., Yang, C.-L., Fang, C.-L., Lee, M.-Y., & Lin, P.-C. (2013). Community-based postpartum exercise program. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 22(15–16), 2122–2131. doi:10.1111/jocn.12117
LeCheminant, J. D., Hinman, T., Pratt, K. B., Earl, N., Bailey, B. W., Thackeray, R., & Tucker, L. A. (2012). Effect of resistance training on body composition, self-efficacy, depression, and activity in postpartum women. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 24(2), 414–421. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01490.x
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Teychenne, M., & York, R. (2013). Physical activity, sedentary behavior, and postnatal depressive symptoms: A review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 45(2), 217–227. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2013.04.004
Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC, FAPA
Dr. Kendall-Tackett is a health psychologist and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and the owner and Editor-in-Chief of Praeclarus Press, a small press specializing in women’s health. She is Editor-in-Chief of two peer-reviewed journals: Clinical Lactation and Psychological Trauma. She is Fellow of the American Psychological Association in Health and Trauma Psychology, Past President of the APA Division of Trauma Psychology, and a member of the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest. Dr. Kendall-Tackett specializes in women’s-health research including breastfeeding, depression, trauma, and health psychology, and has won many awards for her work including the 2016 Outstanding Service to the Field of Trauma Psychology from the American Psychological Association’s Division 56.
Dr. Kendall-Tackett has authored more than 400 articles or chapters, and has just completed her 35th book, The Phantom of the Opera: A Social History of the World’s Most Popular Musical. Her most recent books include: Depression in New Mothers, 3rd Edition (2016, Routledge UK, in press), Women’s Mental Health Across the Lifespan (2016, Routledge US, in press, with Lesia Ruglass), Psychology of Trauma 101 (2015, Springer, with Lesia Ruglass) and The Science of Mother-Infant Sleep (2014, Praeclarus, with Wendy Middlemiss). Her websites are: