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The British study included three boys and 10 girls with depression who were enrolled in trainer-led workouts three times a week for 12 weeks. The teens were also encouraged to exercise 30 minutes a day on the other days.
According to the researchers, the workouts were linked to significant boosts in mood, with depression severity cut by 63 percent. Eighty-three percent of the teens who completed the exercise program were no longer as depressed by the end of the study, which was slated for presentation Saturday at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego.
"Exercise has so many advantages as a therapy: It is non-drug, has few side effects and has countless other health benefits. But it has never been tested in youth as treatment for depression," study author Robin Callister, of the University of Newcastle, said in a Society for Neuroscience news release.
"Evidence that exercise can lift mood in young people is a huge step forward in treatment of this delicate population," she added. "We are now conducting a larger trial to further evaluate the effects of exercise in depression and are hopeful that it could be used as a treatment in addition to other treatments for depression without potential problems."
Two experts in the United States said the findings made sense.
"It is no surprise that exercise reduces depression, regardless of age," said Mark Solms, co-chair of the Neuropsychoanalysis Association in New York City. "It is well established that vigorous and protracted exercise raises endorphin levels, and that endorphins [brain chemicals linked to lowered stress] reduce the mental pain of depression no less than they reduce physical pain."
Victor Fornari is director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y. He noted that depression is a "serious medical condition associated with suffering" and also a major contributor to suicides among young people.
"Although the evidence suggests that the most effective treatment to date for adolescents with depression is a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy in conjunction with antidepressant medication, exercise may also be valuable in the recovery of depression," Fornari said. "In addition to being associated with a healthy lifestyle, regular exercise may have positive benefit in terms of psychological relief, as it does with some depressed adults."
Still, the study is very small and experts noted that findings presented at medical meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Fornari agreed that "further studies are needed in order to determine the role of exercise in the recovery from depression during adolescence."
And Solms pointed out another potential hurdle when using exercise as treatment for depression: "The only problem is that it is very difficult to motivate depressed people to exercise," he said.
-- Robert Preidt
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