Background: Exercise may help to mitigate symptoms of depression by reducing inflammation; however, little is known about the influence of exercise intensity on depressed mood.
Methods: In the present study, sixty-one university students were assigned to six weeks of high-intensity interval training (HIT), moderate continuous training (MCT), or no exercise (CON) during their academic term. We measured changes in depression, anxiety and perceived stress along with pro-inflammatory cytokines tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), interleukin-6 (IL-6), interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β), and C-reactive protein (CRP).
Results: Depression increased for CON, demonstrating how quickly mental health can decline for students during their academic term. In contrast, MCT decreased depression and pro-inflammatory cytokine TNF-α levels. Although HIT decreased depressive symptoms, it also increased perceived stress, TNF-α and IL-6 relative to MCT. This may be due to the higher level of physical stress evoked by the more strenuous exercise protocol.
Conclusions: Taken together, the results suggest that moderate-intensity exercise may be an optimal intensity of exercise for the promotion of mental health by decreasing TNF-α. This is critical for informing the use of exercise as medicine for mental health.
Keywords: Cytokines; Interleukin-6 (IL-6); Mental health; Mood; Physical activity; Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α).
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