A brisk run, a friendly game of chess, a soothing massage: All these pursuits can help ease mild depression, experts say.
“These are all things that are certainly worth trying and are generally healthy, anyway,” said Dr. Nadia Marsh, an expert in treating depression and chief of the division of geriatrics at Cabrini Medical Center, in New York City.
Marsh stressed, however, that alternative or complementary therapies probably won’t do much to ease really serious depression.
“For any form of mild depression, all of these things can help when added together,” she said. “But, even then, it’s not a form of treatment in and of itself.”
Each year millions of Americans are diagnosed with depression, and many turn to their doctors for either professional psychotherapy or an antidepressant medication — usually widely used selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac or Zoloft.
But increasingly, people are also looking for non-pharmacologic relief of illness, including depression. Unfortunately, according to Marsh, the evidence to support the effectiveness of alternative therapies against the disease isn’t strong.
“The studies for non-pharmacologic interventions have not been great,” she said. “There are relatively few randomized controlled trials, and the ones that have been done are plagued by problems such as too-short follow-up or small sample size.”
Still, some research has been encouraging. One study released about five years ago found that exercise could be a major weapon against depression.
“Exercise, at least when performed in a group setting, seems to be at least as effective as standard antidepressant medications in reducing symptoms in patients with major depression,” said researcher James Blumenthal, a professor of medical psychology at Duke University.
His team’s study found that 10 months of regular, moderate exercise reduced depressive symptoms at a rate equal to that of Zoloft.
Another study, this time by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, found that 30-minute workouts done three to five times a week could cut depressive symptoms in half in young adults.
Even less vigorous activities, such as T’ai chi or yoga, may help lower blood pressure and ease stress, Marsh said. “People who exercise also tend to feel that they have more control over their life,” she added. That’s important, since a persistent feeling of helplessness is a hallmark of depression.