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Moderate exercise before therapy can amplify mental health benefits, study finds

Two new studies show correlations between exercise and improved mental health.

PORTLAND, Maine — Two new studies from Iowa State University show a correlation between exercise and improved mental health.

Dozens of studies have linked better mood with exercise. Professor Jacob Meyer's research focused on depression

In one study, researchers recruited 30 adults who were experiencing major depressive episodes and asked them to either cycle on a stationary bike for 30 minutes or sit. During the cycling experiment, participants’ depressed mood state reportedly improved over the 30 minutes of exercise and was consistent up to 75 minutes afterward. 

In a second study, five of 10 participants exercised on their own (e.g., cycled, jogged, walked) for 30 minutes at a pace they considered moderate intensity before signing into an hour of virtual, cognitive behavior therapy each week. The other five participants simply continued in their day-to-day activities before their therapy sessions.

At the end of the eight-week intervention program, participants in both groups showed improvements, but those who exercised before talking with a therapist showed more significant reductions in symptoms of depression.

The researchers said the results indicate exercise could help amplify the benefits of therapy for adults with depression.

Meyer admitted the sample size in the second study is small but could lead the way for more research with more participants.

"There might be something to exercising right before therapy that might help the way that therapy develops over time," Meyer said. "We're trying to find the best ways to integrate exercise into mental health care."

Yarmouth native Lexi Wing said she experienced this firsthand. She dealt with panic attacks that prevented her from playing college soccer. Her first experience with a therapist was not a good fit.

"It just felt like there was something wrong with me as opposed to this is something that happens, and there are ways to deal with it," Wing said.

She turned to fitness but found that more intense exercise was not always the best answer. In fact, sometimes that higher intensity backfired.

"I felt like I always had to be super sore or I needed to exhausted by the end of it in order to feel like what I did was worth it, and made me successful, but that also made me start to dread going to the gym or working out or moving body because some days I just didn't have that energy in me," Wing said.

Chemicals in the brain also play a role. Serotonin and dopamine help to reduce depression and regulate anxiety. The brain releases these chemicals during exercise, even at low intensity workouts, such as walking.

Owner of Momentum Performance and Wellness, Chris Pribish, L-ATC, CSCS, CSAC, said it takes 20 to 40 minutes of lower to moderate intensity exercise to produce those chemicals.

Higher intensity workouts, such as running, can produce them in 15 minutes.

"Exercise should be something that you enjoy. It can be beneficial to be outside gardening, going for a walk with a friend to something more intense, like tennis, golf, hiking, or going in the gym, if you like it and have the instruction to do it safely," Pribish said. "It is a wide variety, and it shouldn't be thought of as it's only in this little box: This is exercise, and this stuff isn't."

Wing said younger people are starting to be more in tune with mental health and how to handle it in healthy ways.

"We're not really taught how to deal with those feelings or even recognize what's happening or what you're feeling," Wing said. "We don't really teach that until we're older and it's too late. We're trying to pick up the pieces."

She said prevention works as much for mental health as it does for exercise. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and working on mental health earlier in life can prevent bad habits down the road.

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