Cardio may help treat depression, anxiety in young people

'It's becoming more accepted, but there hasn't been enough research in this area to make people confident'

Exercise may help the brain manage depression and anxiety, according to a new study

Research from the University of California at Davis Medical Center found cardio increased neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA—or chemical messenger—levels, which are low in depressed and anxious patients.

Lead author Richard Maddock, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, says he hopes the study will push people to include exercise as a type of therapy. 

Around 1 in 7 college students were treated for anxiety in past year

"It's becoming more accepted, but there hasn't been enough research in this area to make people confident," he says.

Study details

For the study, researchers measured the GABA and glutamate levels in 38 healthy volunteers who vigorously biked for up to 20 minutes over three sessions.

They found a jump in neurotransmitter levels in parts of the brain that help process visuals and regulate heart rate, some cognitive functions, and emotions. Those increases generally dropped after about half an hour but lasted longer in people who exercised three to four times in the week preceding the study. Participants in the control group, which did not exercise, had no change in neurotransmitter levels.

"The inference here, then, is that regular exercise might keep levels higher all the time," Maddock says.

Working out trains the brain even better than mental activities like chess or math, Maddock says. "This is about the brain working better, including those parts of the brain that regulate emotions."

The findings are supported by prior research. A 2011 survey of 11 studies found exercise helped depressed patients.

What it means for patients 

"Psychotherapy, exercise, and medication are all tools that can be effective for mental-health disorders," says Jennifer Carter, an Ohio State University clinical assistant professor of family medicine and director of sports psychology. She says she has recommended exercise therapy since the early 2000s.

The recent study may be the most promising for patients under 25, who tend to experience more antidepressant side effects, Maddock says. Exercise may provide an alternative.

Next, Maddock says he wants to study 25 individuals with depression to see how their neurotransmitters react to the exercise.

"It may be that not everyone will respond to exercise, but that we could identify those who would and then treat them accordingly," he says.

Other studies have linked exercise to higher GPAs in college students—and many colleges are facing overwhelming demand for mental health services (Loudin, Washington Post, 5/9). 

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