logoTimeSpecials.pngExercise is a great way to alleviate anxiety and depression, according to a new article in TIME magazine that features the research of SMU psychologist Jasper Smits.

Exercise is free and has no side effects, says the June 19 article “Is Exercise the Best Drug for Depression?” by Laura Blue. “Compare that with antidepressant drugs, which cost Americans $10 billion each year and have many common side effects: sleep disturbances, nausea, tremors, changes in body weight,” writes Blue.

Smits has said that more therapists should prescribe exercise as an effective treatment. He co-authored a book detailing how exercise can provide relief for people who struggle with depression and anxiety disorders.

Smits and Michael Otto, psychology professor at Boston University, analyzed numerous studies and determined exercise should be more widely prescribed by mental health care providers.

They presented their findings to researchers and mental health care providers March 6 at the Anxiety Disorder Association of America’s annual conference in Baltimore. Their workshop was based on their therapist guide “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders,” with accompanying patient workbook (Oxford University Press, September 2009).

The guide draws on dozens of population-based studies, clinical studies and meta-analytic reviews that demonstrate the efficacy of exercise programs, including the authors’ meta-analysis of exercise interventions for mental health and study on reducing anxiety sensitivity with exercise.

By Laura Blue
TIME magazine

At his research clinic in Dallas, psychologist Jasper Smits is working on an unorthodox treatment for anxiety and mood disorders, including depression. It is not yet widely accepted, but his treatment is free and has no side effects. Compare that with antidepressant drugs, which cost Americans $10 billion each year and have many common side effects: sleep disturbances, nausea, tremors, changes in body weight.

This intriguing new treatment? It’s nothing more than exercise.

That physical activity is crucial to good health — both mental and physical — is nothing new. As early as the 1970s and ’80s, observational studies showed that Americans who exercised were not only less likely to be depressed than those who did not, but were also less likely become depressed in the future.

In 1999, Duke University researchers demonstrated in a randomized controlled trial that depressed adults who participated in an aerobic exercise plan improved as much as those treated with sertraline, the drug that was marketed as Zoloft, and was earning Pfizer more than $3 billion annually before its patent expired in 2006.

Subsequent trials have repeated these results, showing again and again that patients who undergo aerobic exercise regimens see comparable improvement in their depression as those treated with medication, and that both groups do better than patients given only a placebo. But exercise trials on the whole have been small and most have run only for a few weeks; some are plagued by methodological problems.

Still, despite limited data, the trials all seem to point in the same direction: Exercise boosts mood. It not only relieves depressive symptoms, but appears to prevent them from recurring.

“I was really surprised that more people weren’t working in this area when I got into it,” says Smits, an associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University.

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