The project Jennifer Travis participated in was one of the early studies to show the mood-lifting power of exercise. The evidence has grown steadily more convincing ever since. In 1999 researchers at Duke University published the results of a study in which they divided depressed patients ages 50 to 77 into three groups. The first did 30 minutes of jogging or brisk walking three times a week; the second took the antidepressant Zoloft; the third did both. After four months, patients in all three groups were doing equally well, the medication offering no particular advantage over the regular practice of working out, except in relieving the symptoms a little faster. When the researchers followed up six months later, however, they found a major difference between the types of treatment. About a third of the patients who initially improved on Zoloft (alone and with exercise) had relapsed, whereas 92 percent of those benefiting from just the aerobic exercise program were still doing well. Most of the joggers and walkers had decided on their own initiative to keep exercising even after the study had ended.
I have experienced both the preventive and therapeutic value of exercise in my own life. When, at 22, I arrived in America from France, I hardly knew anybody. Besides going to medical school, I was looking for an apartment, moving in, getting the lay of the land. Starting all over again, without parents around to tell me what to do, was fun at the beginning, but after a few months, my life seemed empty, devoid of pleasure. Without my family, my friends, my culture, my favorite hangouts, I felt as if I were slowly withering away. I remember one evening in particular, nothing seemed to matter or make sense except classical music. I listened to Schubert endlessly instead of studying. After several weeks in this stark mood, I realized that if I didn't do something, I was going to fail my exams.
I didn't know where to begin, but I knew I had to shake myself out of my stupor. I thought about squash, which I had taken up shortly before leaving Paris. Luckily, I had brought my racket with me—and it saved me.
During the first two weeks of playing at a local health club, nothing changed except that I finally had something to look forward to. But also, thanks to squash, I met a few people who were nice enough to invite me over for dinner. For a long time, I didn't know whether it was the exercise or my new friends that helped me most, but whatever the explanation, it didn't matter. I felt far better, and I was back in the saddle.
We Hear You!