Harriet was a 28-year-old student working towards a masters degree. She lived alone, didn’t go out much, and complained about not finding the right man. Her life felt empty, and she saw little prospect of that changing.
Her only pleasure was her three packets of cigarettes a day. She had been suffering from depression for two years, and neither counselling nor drugs seemed to help. Finally, her doctor suggested she take part in a study of exercise for depression — she would have to run for 20 to 30 minutes, either alone or in a group, three times a week. She decided to take up the challenge.
The first time Harriet met her trainer, she had her doubts. How could he possibly think that she — a heavy smoker who’d done no sport since the age of 14, and who was at least a stone and a half overweight — could be a suitable subject for the study? Nevertheless, she listened to his advice: take very small steps — jog rather than run — leaning slightly forward without lifting the knees too high. Above all, don’t force the pace. ‘You should be able to talk, but not whistle or sing,’ her trainer advised. ‘If you start to feel breathless, slow down, even to a fast walking pace, if you have to. Never push yourself to a point where you feel pain or fatigue.’
The aim of the first sessions was to cover a mile, with no time limit, jogging as much as possible throughout. Harriet felt quite pleased with herself when she managed this on the very first day. After three weeks of three sessions per week, she was able to run one-and-a-half miles, soon increasing to two miles, without any difficulty. After six weeks, she had to admit she felt considerably better. She was sleeping well, had more energy and generally felt less sorry for herself. Plus, of course, she was smoking less.
Researchers at Duke University in the USA compared jogging as a treatment for depression with the effect of taking Zoloft, a widely prescribed antidepressant from the same drug family as Prozac. After four months, the improvement in the mood of both groups of patients was exactly the same. The drug apparently offered no advantage over jogging. After a year, on the other hand, a clear difference was demonstrated: over a third of the patients who initially had been treated with Zoloft had succumbed to depression again after they’d stopped taking the drug, whereas 92 per cent of the joggers, most of whom had kept the habit of taking regular exercise, still felt perfectly well.
Another study has shown that it is not necessary to be young and in particularly good health to benefit from physical exercise. For sufferers of depression aged between 50 and 80, simply walking fast for 30 minutes three times a week had, after four months, exactly the same effect as taking antidepressants.
Photograph: Polka Dot Images