“We are excited by the findings because we saw such a meaningful improvement in both clinically depressed and non-depressed students,” says Brandon Alderman, assistant professor in the exercise science and sports studies department at Rutgers University. “It is the first time that both of these two behavioral therapies have been looked at together for dealing with depression.”
The findings show that a combination of mental and physical training (MAP) enabled those with major depressive disorder to not let problems or negative thoughts overwhelm them.
“Scientists have known for a while that both of these activities alone can help with depression,” says Tracey Shors, professor in the psychology department and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience. “But this study suggests that when done together, there is a striking improvement in depressive symptoms along with increases in synchronized brain activity.”
The men and women were recruited from a university-counseling and psychiatric-services clinic. Those who completed the eight-week program—22 suffering with depression and 30 mentally healthy students—reported fewer depressive symptoms and said they didn’t spend as much time worrying about negative situations taking place in their lives as they did before the study began.
MAP training was also provided to young mothers who had been homeless but were living at a residential treatment facility when they began the study. The women involved in the research exhibited severe depressive symptoms and elevated anxiety levels at the beginning. But at the end of the eight weeks, they too, reported that their depression and anxiety had eased, they felt more motivated, and they were able to focus more positively on their lives.
Depression often occurs in adolescence or young adulthood. Until recently, the most common treatment for depression has been psychotropic medications that influence brain chemicals and regulate emotions and thought patterns along with talk therapy that can work but takes considerable time and commitment on the part of the patient.
Participants in the new study, which is published in the journal “Translational Psychiatry,” began with 30 minutes of focused- attention meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. They were told that if their thoughts drifted to the past or the future, they should refocus on their breathing—enabling those with depression to accept moment-to-moment changes in attention.
Even though neurogenesis cannot be monitored in humans, scientists have shown in animal models that aerobic exercise increases the number of new neurons, and effortful learning keeps a significant number of those cells alive, Shors says.
The idea for the human intervention came from laboratory studies, with the main goal of helping individuals acquire new skills so that they could learn to recover from stressful life events. By learning to focus their attention and exercise, people who are fighting depression can acquire new cognitive skills that can help them process information and reduce the overwhelming recollection of memories from the past, Shors says.
“We know these therapies can be practiced over a lifetime and that they will be effective in improving mental and cognitive health,” Alderman says. “The good news is that this intervention can be practiced by anyone at any time and at no cost.”