High Intensity Training As An Alternative Treatment for Depression 4

Studies have found that high intensity training can signifcantly reduce symptoms of depression

High Intensity Training As An Alternative Treatment for Depression

Clinical depression is unfortunately a common occurrence in the United States. According to statistics from the U.S. National Comorbidity Survey, 16% of Americans will suffer from a clinically defined depressive disorder during the course of their lifetime and conventional treatments can be often difficult to administer. Among the cases looked at by the Cormorbidity Survey only 22% received adequate treatment leaving the majority without proper treatment or diagnosis.(1)  Further compounding the problem is the high rate of adverse effects that come from the use of antidepressants and the high dropout rates among users. This phenomena is particularly stronger among older adults who studies have shown to be less tolerant of antidepressants than their younger counterparts. Meta-analysis of antidepressant trials in older adults found that the dropout rate was 25% with 60% experiencing what were termed adverse effects during an average treatment period of only 5 weeks.(2) That being said the search for viable and non toxic alternatives for the treatment of depression should be a key priority in mental health research, especially for the older members of our population. Exercise has thus far been positively viewed as a potential alternative treatment with most of the research focusing on the use of aerobic exercise. However randomized controlled trials have also identified significant improvements in clinically depressed older and younger adults, both male and female through the use of resistance training. (3-7)

Weight Lifting Found To Be As Effective As Aerobics In Relieving Depression

One study conducted at the University of Rochester and published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that weight lifting was as effective as aerobic exercise in improving clinical depression.(6) The study involved 40 women, all clinically diagnosed with a depressive disorder who were randomly assigned to three groups for 8 weeks- one group with a exercise regiment involving running (aerobic exercise), the second group employing a weight lifting program while the final group remained on a wait list as a control doing no extra activities during the two month period. Subjects were reassessed during the course of the study, after the study and then at 1, 7 and 12 month follow up intervals. The results were consistent across the board with both exercise regimes- running (aerobics) and weight lifting significantly reducing depression as compared to the control group even though no truly significant fitness changes were seen in either group. The study concluded that both forms of exercise were equally effective and that an aerobic effect was not responsible for improvements in depression among people who exercise.

Exercise Intensity Is Directly Related To Relief Of Depressive Symptoms

Another study, published in the Journal of Gerontology sought to discover whether there was a relationship between the intensity of the exercise performed and the degree of reduction in depression among older adults. In this randomized control trial sixty older adults with diagnosed depressive disorders were assigned to three groups. Group one involved supervised progressive resistance high intensity training at a threshold of 80% of their maximum load for three days a week for eight week period. Group two involved low  intensity progressive resistance training at 20% of maximum load for the same length of time and group three received standard care from their GP with a mandate to not exercise for the duration of the trial.

The study found a whooping 50% reduction in the Hamilton Rating Scale of Depression in 61% of the high intensity training group and that ‘strength gain was directly related to the reduction in depressive symptoms’. (8) Vitality quality of life scale improved more in the high intensity group than the others and while sleep quality was improved in all participants the greatest relative change took place in the high intensity training group. With such impressive results there is a real need for much further research into whether this could be a clinically prescribed treatment for depression and possibly an alternative to the use of anti-depressant medication. One important factor that needs to be studied is the duration of exercise sessions required to effect a reduction in depressive symptoms as all of the exercise protocols used in the trials lasted for the standard time of 60 minutes each. One of the biggest drawbacks to the use of exercise as a tool for people suffering from depression is the fact that the motivation required to train for an hour three times a week is hard to come by within the general population, much less an individual suffering from depressive disorders. However, with so much research showing that short high intensity sessions, lasting anywhere from 6 to 10 minutes can bring about increases in strength, muscle mass, endurance and coordination it might be a more viable alternative for individuals who would find it difficult to stick to a longer regime.(9)(10)(11) In addition some data suggest that ‘a low-frequency, high intensity approach to training is associated with greater long-term adherence as compared with a high-frequency, low-intensity approach.'(12)

So certainly more in terms of research is needed and many argue that the lack of it stems primarily from the enormous profit that depression provides to pharmaceutical companies, who have considerable power over mental health policy and protocols and that there would be little to be gained if depression could be treated simply by having someone exercise three days a week. Whatever the reasons, it is indeed a potentially invaluable tool that could in some way help the millions suffering from depression.

Related Articles: Is Exercise As Effective For Relieving Depression As Therapy and Medication?


1. Hirschfield RA, Keller M, Panico S, et al. The national depressive and manic depression association consensus statement on the under treatment of depression. Journal of American Medicine

2.Mittman N, Hermann N, Einarson T, et al. The efficacy safety and tolerability of antidepressants in late life depression: a meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders.

3. McNeil K, LeBlanc E, Joyce M. The effect of exercise on depressive symptoms in the moderately depressed elderly. Psychology of Aging

4.Blumenthal JA, Babyak MA, Moore KA, et al. Effects of exercise training on older patients with major depression. Archives of Internal Medicine

5. Singh NA, Clements KM, Fiatarone MA. A randomized controlled trial of progressive resistance training in depressed elders. Journal of Gerontology Medical Sciences

6.Doyne EJ, Ossip-Klein DJ, Bowman ED, Osborn KM, McDougall-Wilson IB, Neimeyer IB. Running Versus Weight Lifting in the Treatment of Depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

7. Martinsen EW, Hoffart A, Solberg O. Comparing aerobic and non aerobic forms of exercise in the treatment of clinical depression: a randomized trial. Comprehensive Psychiatry

8. Singh NA, Stavrinos TM, Scarbeck Y, Galambos G, Liber C, Singh MA. A randomized controlled trial of high versus low intensity weight training versus general practitioner care for clinical depression in older adults. Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences

9.Burgomaster KA, Hughes SC, Heigenhauser GJF, Bradwell SN,Gibala MJ. Six sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology

10. Coyle EF. Very intense exercise-training is extremely potent and time efficient: a reminder. Journal of Applied Physiology

11. Burgomaster KA, Howarth KR, Phillips S, Rakobowchuk M, MacDonald MJ, McGee SL, Gilba MJ.Similar metabolic adaptations during exercise after low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance training in humans.Journal of Applied Physiology

12. Gilba MJ. High-intensity Interval Training: A Time-efficient Strategy for Health Promotion. Canada Current Sports Medicine Reports.

Kevin Richardson is the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training 10 Minute Workouts™ and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here.

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