Exercise for Depression: The Long-Term Impact
After 16 weeks of treatment, there were 83 patients (spread evenly across all three groups) that were declared in remission and free from depression.
The researchers decided to let these patients spend the next six months without receiving any treatment from professionals. The patients were welcome to continue their treatment on their own or to try something new entirely.
When the researchers followed up with the patients six months later, here’s what they found…
- In the medication only group, 38% of patients relapsed into depression.
- In the exercise and medication group, 31% of patients relapsed into depression.
- In the exercise only group, only 8% of patients relapsed into depression.
You can see the results of the study in the graph below. Notice that over 85% of patients in the exercise only group remained depression free after 6 months on their own.
What made the difference?
Why Exercise Outperformed Medication
Dr. Blumenthal and his colleagues described the differences between exercise and medication like this…
One of the positive psychological benefits of systematic exercise is the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self–regard, which we believe is likely to play some role in the depression–reducing effects of exercise.
In other words, exercise confirms your new identity to yourself. It changes the type of person that you believe that you are and proves that you can become better. (I've previously said that the self–confidence that comes with exercise is one of the biggest benefits of weight training.)
This philosophy directly aligns with our community's focus on identity-based habits. It doesn't matter if you're battling depression, working to lose weight, or trying to create work that matters. Your identity — the type of person that you believe that you are — is what dictates how far you'll go in any endeavor.
When it comes to beating depression over the long-term, this is what makes exercise more powerful than medication. It's not that medication doesn't work — it does. But exercise does something that medication doesn't. It proves a new identity to yourself. Each time you finish a workout, you reap the benefits of an increased sense of self-confidence. The cumulative impact of these “small wins” is enormous.
In the words of the researchers, patients who only used medication had the following internal thoughts…
Instead of incorporating the belief “I was dedicated and worked hard with the exercise program; it wasn’t easy, but I beat this depression,” patients might incorporate the belief that “I took an antidepressant and got better.”
It seems small, but this subtle shift in empowerment and self-confidence is huge. It's your identity that carries you to success.
- If you believe that you're the type of person who doesn't miss workouts, then you're going to get in great shape.
- If you believe that you're the type of person who overcomes uncertainty, then you'll succeed when you face a challenge.
- If you believe that you're the type of person who puts others first, then you'll live a life of service.
But no matter what, it's your identity that carries you to long-term success. And this is where medication falls short. It treats your symptoms, but doesn't rebuild your identity.