Common sense, clinical intuition, non-experimental research studies, and most sentient beings all support the likelihood that physical exercise can reduce depressive symptoms.
But, to the best of my knowledge, only one, very small, randomized controlled study of exercise for treating major depressive disorder in youth has ever been conducted. This study was nicknamed the DATE study (the Depression in Adolescence Treated with Exercise study by Hughes, Barnes, Barnes, DeFina, Nakonezny, & Emslie, and published in 2013 in a journal called, Mental Health and Physical Activity).
A brief review of the DATE study provides a glimpse into the potential of exercise as an intervention for treating depression in youth.
The DATE study randomized youth ages 12 – 18 years into an aerobic/cardio group (n = 16) vs. a stretching group (n =14). Although participants exercised independently and were given a variety of exercise alternatives (they could use Wii or Jazzercize, that’s right Jazzercize), both groups were involved in 12 weeks of rigorously monitored three times weekly exercise treatment protocols.
The results were statistically and clinically significant, with the aerobic condition showing remarkably fast responses and achieving a 100% response rate (86% complete depression remission). The stretching group improved more slowly, but also had a significant positive response (67% clinical response rate; 50% complete depression remission).
Now you might be thinking, that sounds pretty good, but how do those results compare with response rates from established medical treatments, like Prozac?
The authors shared that information. They reported that documented response rates in comparable fluoxetine (Prozac) studies with youth, showed, on average, about a 52% (Prozac) and 37% (placebo) response rate. Just to be clear, let’s put those results in order of which treatment looks best:
- Aerobic Exercise = 100% response rate
- Stretching = 67% response rate
- Prozac = 52% response rate
- Placebo – 37% response rate
But the authors didn’t stop there.
They noted that although Prozac shows beneficial treatment effects, clients who take Prozac and other antidepressants commonly experience uncomfortable side effects and occasional health-threatening adverse events. How do you suppose the exercise and stretch groups compared?
No big surprise here: They experienced ZERO side effects and ZERO adverse events.
In summary, the DATE study authors reported that, compared to antidepressant medication treatment with adolescents, exercise resulted in (a) a faster response rate, (b) a better response rate, (c) fewer relapses (n = 0) at six and 12 month follow-ups, and (d) zero side effects or adverse events (Hughes et al., 2103).
But here’s the kicker. Who exactly were these researchers?
This is my favorite part. The researchers were extremely high level and prestigious academics who primarily conduct pharmaceutical research. One of them was the guy responsible for the clinical studies that led to FDA approval of Prozac for treating youth with depression (Graham Emslie). The two biggest names on the study have repeatedly been funded by Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and many more. The DATE study was funded by NIH.
Sadly, the DATE study hasn’t been replicated. I can’t find any new RCTs on exercise for depression among adolescents. When I told this to Rita, she just quipped, “That’s probably because the authors were murdered by pharmaceutical companies in some back alley.”
I hope not. Because, to summarize, the DATE study supports the systematic use of exercise in youth with depressive symptoms OVER and INSTEAD OF antidepressants.
Just about everyone.