A clinical study of the efficacy of a single session of individual exercise for depressive patients, assessed by the change in saliva free cortisol level

Biopsychosoc Med. 2013 Dec 6;7(1):18. doi: 10.1186/1751-0759-7-18.


Background: The efficacy of physical exercise as an augmentation to pharmacotherapy with antidepressants for depressive patients has been documented. However, to clarify the effectiveness of exercise in the treatment of depression, it is necessary to distinguish the effect of the exercise itself from the effect of group dynamics. Furthermore, an objective measurement for estimation of the effect is needed. Previous reports adopted a series of group exercises as the exercise intervention and mainly psychometric instruments for the measurement of effectiveness. Therefore, this clinical study was done to examine the effectiveness of a single session of individual exercise on depressive symptoms by assessing the change in saliva free cortisol level, which reflects hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis function that is disturbed in depressive patients.

Method: Eighteen medicated patients, who met the DSM-IV-TR criteria for major depressive disorder, were examined for the change in saliva free cortisol levels and the change in subjective depressive symptoms before and after pedaling a bicycle ergometer for fifteen minutes. Within a month after the exercise session, participants conducted a non-exercise control session, which was sitting quietly at the same time of day as the exercise session.

Results: Depressed patients who participated in this study were in remission or in mild depressive state. However, they suffered chronic depression and had disturbed quality of life. The saliva free cortisol level and subjective depressive symptoms significantly decreased after the exercise session. Moreover, the changes in these variables were significantly, positively correlated. On the other hand, although the subjective depressive symptoms improved in the control session, the saliva free cortisol level did not change.

Conclusion: For the first time in depressive patients, we were able to show a decrease in the saliva free cortisol level due to physical exercise, accompanied by the improvement of subjective depressive symptoms. This identified a possible influence of exercise on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in depression.These results suggest the utility of assessing the effect of physical exercise by saliva free cortisol level in depressive patients who suffer from bio-psycho-social disability.