Jan 16, 2024
ISU to study effectiveness of exercise on people with mental health struggles

An Iowa State University associate professor of kinesiology wants to know more about how and why—and what type of—exercise matters in an individual’s mental health.

Jacob Meyer, the ISU associate professor, is setting out on a five-year study to study 200 adults with depression on whether resistance training is just as helpful as aerobic exercise over a 16-week trial.

mental healthHe’s additionally conducting a separate two-year study to explore how exercise can enhance the benefits of therapy.

A recent story from The Gazette detailed the studies by Iowa State’s Meyer. Below is an excerpt from The Gazette story.

“One of the big issues with mental health treatment is that there are lots of people who don’t want to do medication-based treatment, or who want to have some alternatives to medication-based treatments,” Meyer said. “So we’re really trying to figure out what are the best options for people … especially if they’re interested in a non-pharmacological approach to improve their depression.”

These inquiries are a continuation of Meyer’s yearslong look into the impact of exercise on depression — which winter months can amplify with its dark days, gray skies, arctic temperatures and heavy snow keeping people indoors for days.

From 2020 to 2022, Meyer and his ISU team led smaller pilot studies that produced “promising results,” finding — among other things — that 30 minutes of exercise might reduce depression symptoms for at least 75 minutes after the workout and also amplify therapy benefits.

“That led into the grant proposals for these larger projects that have since been funded,” Meyer said. “And now we’re hoping that we’re off to the races to figure it out.”

The newly funded resistance exercise study started recruitment this month in hopes of answering three key questions over the next five years:

  • Does weight training reduce symptoms of depression?
  • If so, does the reason have to do with blood flow to the brain and within the brain?
  • And is it possible to identify who would benefit most from weight training?

“There is a lot of research that suggests that people with mental health conditions have areas of the brain that are either under-activated or over-activated, and we think it’s possible there is some re-regulation of brain blood flow patterns through resistance exercise training that may mediate reductions in depression and anxiety,” Meyer said.

Each participant will be randomly assigned to a low-dose or high-dose version of resistance training — all performed in ISU’s “Wellbeing and Exercise Laboratory,” which Meyer directs. By splitting the participants into two groups, he said, researchers will be able to observe whether the benefit is coming from doing any workout at all, or whether weight lifting — specifically — is helping.

If the high-dose group is doing better, “then we’re pretty sure that there’s some specific, unique benefits to that higher resistance mode that’s resulting in the benefit.” Like, for example, the way sets and reps involved in weight lifting provide “inconsistent but patterned demands on the vascular system.”

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That type of demand differs from the consistent blood flow produced during aerobic exercise.

ISU researchers will use non-invasive tools like Doppler ultrasound to measure study participants’ brain blood flow — while also taking data on the structure and function of blood vessels in the neck that flow to the brain.

To read the full story from The Gazette, click here. 

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