Practically everyone, from experts with PhDs to your annoying coworker who only wears gym clothes and always has a Luna Bar attached to her hand, raves about how exercise releases endorphins. (The "exercise feels amazing!" argument even popped up in last Sunday's episode of Girls, which is how we can be certain it's for real.) For decades, researchers have tried to prove that exercise can make even clinically depressed people happier. But a new study shows it's not that simple.
According to the Telegraph, most of the evidence that exercise reduces symptoms of depression is based on small, non-clinical samples. (Although this 2010 Time piece kind of says otherwise.) Now, a new large-scale, randomized study published in the British Medical Journal has found that clinically depressed people who received a "physical activity intervention" for a year did not report feeling any better about their lives.
Study participants, all of whom were diagnosed with depression, were split into two groups: one received "physical activity intervention" (which sounds like a scary new reality TV show) along with normal care for a year, while the other people weren't forced to exert themselves. The people in the group that worked out for twelve months said the exercise didn't alleviate their depression in the slightest.
"Many patients suffering from depression would prefer not to have to take traditional anti-depressant medication, preferring instead to consider alternative non-drug based forms of therapy," said John Campbell, professor of general practice and primary care at Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry. "Exercise and activity appeared to offer promise as one such treatment, but this carefully designed research study has shown that exercise does not appear to be effective in treating depression."
Before you tell your friends to fuck off when they suggest you should cheer up by going for a run instead of eating an entire baguette and watching Romantic Comedies with Strong Female Leads on Netflix, consider that this study isn't that groundbreaking: it's never been proven that exercise is an effective treatment for diagnosed clinical depression. It's of course disappointing that we can't help people suffering with depression by sending them to spin class. But these results don't mean that people with less serious bouts of sadness don't benefit from exercise.
When I asked a few friends why working out makes them feel better, they said:
"I guess it makes me feel accomplished? Like it's a physical thing i can point to and say that I've done."
"I feel better about myself in general, and my mood is better when i exercise."
"I think that a lot of my happiness is derived from me physically feeling the feelings that I'm doing something to improve my body."
"When you work out you become stronger, and it feels good to go through your day feeling powerful and capable. I mean, it's little things like that. Running up the stairs and not being winded. Enjoying how you look in your clothes."
Exactly. Exercise can't solve all of our problems, but fortunately (or unfortunately, if you were excited to have a scientific reason not to go to the gym) it seems to help with the "little things," at least, for most. And, obviously, it makes you less likely to get scary diseases. So there's that!
Image via HBO.