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Influence of Aerobic Exercise Training and

Relaxation Training on Physical and Psychologic

Health Following Stressful Life Events


An experiment was conducted to determine whether aerobic exercise training or relaxation

training would be effective for reducing the deleterious effects of life stress on physical and
psychologic health. Over 1000 college students were surveyed, and 55 of those who reported
experiencing a high number of negative life events over the preceding year were assigned to
an aerobic exercise training condition a relaxation training condition, or a no-treatment control
condition. Physical and psychologic health were assessed with self-report measures before,
halfway through, immediately following, and 8 weeks after the 11-week training (and control)
period. Heart rate data collected during a treadmill test indicated that the aerobic exercise
training was effective for improving cardiovascular fitness. Psychologic measures indicated that
the exercise training condition was more effective than the other two conditions for reducing
depression during the first 5 weeks of training. No differences were found among the conditions
on self-report measures of physical health. These findings suggest that aerobic exercise training
may be useful for reducing the severity and duration of depressive reactions following stressful
life change.

The amount of stressful life change that erate stress and thereby avoid developing
persons report experiencing over a recent stress-related health problems.
time period has been repeatedly found to One variable that has been proposed as
be associated with the amount of physical a moderator of the stress-illness relation-
and psychologic health problems they re- ship is aerobic fitness. The results of a re-
port over a subsequent time period (1-5). cent study revealed that following stress-
Currently, there is a great deal of interest ful life events, those subjects with high
in determining the ways in which the del- levels of aerobic fitness reported fewer
eterious effects of stress can be reduced. physical health problems and tended to
Because it is not always practical or even report less depression than did those with
possible to avoid many stressful life events, lower levels of fitness (4). Other compar-
it seems that one of the most effective ways isons of high- and low-fit persons have
to reduce the impact of stress on health indicated that a high level of fitness is
would be to enhance one's ability to tol- associated with reduced physiologic re-
sponses to laboratory stressors requiring
active coping or cognitive processing (6-9).
Physiologic responses to stressors requir-
Address reprint requests to: David L. Roth, Ph.D., ing passive coping (e.g., viewing a stress-
Department of Psychology, Campbell Hall, Univer- ful film, cold pressor task) have not been
sity of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL
35294. reliably different for high- and low-fit per-
Received for publication August 1985; revision re- sons (7, 8), although high-fit persons have
ceived October 22, 1986. been found to show quicker physiologic
From the Department of Psychology, University of
Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. recovery from stressors requiring either

Psychosomatic Medicine 49:355-365 (1987) 355

Copyright © 1987 by (he American Psychosomatic Society, Inc

Published by Elsevier Science Publishing Co , Inc 0033-3174/87/J3 50
52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017

active or passive coping responses (10-12). this variability may have prevented the
However, because these studies did not emergence of between-group differences.
utilize experimental manipulations of fit- Moreover, individual differences in fitness
ness, inferences concerning causation must improvement were found to be signifi-
be considered tentative. cantly correlated with quicker heart rate
There are a few experiments that do pro- recovery for those in the exercise group,
vide some evidence concerning the role providing some support for the hypothesis
that fitness may play in the response to that fitness training alters responses to
stress. In one experiment, subjects who psychologic stress.
participated in an exercise training class The present investigation was designed
showed quicker autonomic recovery, as to experimentally test the influence of
measured by electrodermal response, from aerobic exercise training on the physical
laboratory stressors requiring active cog- and psychological health of a group of col-
nitive processing than subjects who par- lege students who reported experiencing
ticipated in meditation training or music high levels of life stress. On the basis of
appreciation classes (13). An experiment previous prospective studies (1, 3, 4), these
conducted on cardiac patients revealed that students were considered to be at risk for
those assigned to an exercise condition developing more health problems over the
showed greater improvements in cardiac next few months than less stressed stu-
functioning and self-concept than those dents. Subjects assigned to the aerobic ex-
assigned to a routine care condition (14). ercise training condition were compared
An experiment conducted on moderately on measures of self-reported physical and
depressed college women revealed that psychologic health to subjects assigned to
those who were assigned to participate in participate in a progressive relaxation
an aerobic dance class showed greater de- training condition and to subjects as-
clines in depression than those who were signed to a no-treatment control condi-
assigned to a program of self-monitored tion. The exercise training condition con-
relaxation activities or to a no-treatment sisted of running and brisk walking when
condition (15). These investigators pointed necessary, whereas the relaxation training
out, however, that because the women in condition consisted of progressive muscle
the exercise condition participated in relaxation and guided imagery techniques.
groups and those in the relaxation con-
dition participated individually, social
contact and support may have contributed METHODS
to the effects achieved in the exercise con-
dition. Finally, a recent experiment com- Subjects
paring subjects assigned to 10-week aero-
bic training, anaerobic training (weight- The subjects in this investigation were college stu-
dents enrolled in General Psychology classes at the
lifting), or wait-list control conditions re- University of Kansas. A total of 1051 students indi-
vealed no reliable group differences on cated which events on the Life Experiences Survey
heart rate or self-report responses to lab- (LES) (17) they had experienced over the past year,
oratory stressors (16). However, these in- and they rated each experienced event as being either
vestigators reported large variability in the "good" or "bad" when it happened. Those students
degree of fitness improvement in the aero- who reported experiencing a high number of negative
life events and who indicated that they were not
bic training group, and they suggested that currently participating in either a regular aerobic ex-

356 Psychosomatic Medicine 49:355-365 (1987)


ercise training or structured relaxation training pro- no effect, 1 = slight effect, 2 = moderate effect, 3
gram were invited to participate in the experiment. = great effect), in addition to indicating whether
The subjects who agreed to participate were ran- each event experienced was "good" or "bad" when
domly assigned to the aerobic exercise training con- it happened. Finally, to provide measures of psy-
dition, the progressive relaxation training condition, chologic health, each subject completed the Beck
or the no-treatment control condition. Initially, 23, Depression Inventory (BDI) (18), the Spielberger Trait
21, and 21 subjects were assigned to the three con- Anxiety Inventory (STAI) (19), and the Hopkins
ditions, respectively, but 10 subjects dropped out of Symptom Checklist (SCL-90) (20).
the study within the first few weeks, leaving 18 sub- Each subject also participated in an individual ses-
jects in the exercise training condition (9 males, 9 sion in which his or her preintervention level of aero-
females), 19 subjects in the relaxation training con- bic fitness was assessed using a Balke treadmill test
dition (10 males, 9 females), and 18 subjects in the (21). After weighing the subject on an electronic scale,
no-treatment control condition [8 males, 10 females). three electrodes were attached to the subject's chest
The ages of the subjects did not differ reliably across to provide a modified Lead II monitoring of the sub-
the groups. Overall, the subjects had a mean age of ject's cardiac activity. The subject was then in-
18.9 years (SD = 1.3). structed to begin walking on a motorized treadmill
for which the speed was set at 3.4 miles per hour.
The elevation of the treadmill was increased by 1%
Procedures and Measures after each minute until the subject's heart rate reached
90% of the maximum heart rate that would be pre-
dicted for a person of that age (e.g., 220 minus age).
Preintervention Assessments. In initial meet- The grade at which this heart rate was reached was
ings, the procedures to be used in the experiment used to provide an estimate of aerobic capacity in
were explained, and then each subject signed an in- milliliters per kilogram per minute according to the
formed consent statement specific to the particular conversion tables reported by Londeree (22). In ad-
condition to which he or she had been assigned. Next, dition, each subject's heart rate at the 10% grade was
each subject was given a Health Record Form (4) to recorded.
take home and use to record all health problems that
occurred between the preintervention and midinter- Midintervention Assessments. After approxi-
vention sessions. On these forms, each subject was mately 5 weeks of the intervention conditions, each
to indicate the date(s) of each health problem, pro- subject participated in a midintervention question-
vide a brief description of the problem, indicate naire session. Subjects first turned in the Health Re-
whether a doctor was consulted about the problem, cord Forms that were distributed during the prein-
indicate whether medications were used, and rate tervention session, and then they were given blank
the severity of each problem in terms of the degree Health Record Forms to use to record any health
to which it interfered with normal daily activities (1 problems that occurred between the midintervention
= not at all, 2 = a little, 3 = somewhat, 4 = a lot, and postintervention sessions. The subjects then
5 = very much). Subjects were instructed to record completed the Health Survey, BDI, STAI, and SCL-
all physical health problems that occurred including 90 again. In addition, the subjects in the exercise and
minor diseases (e.g., head colds) and transient ail- relaxation training conditions responded to ques-
ments (e.g., headaches). Next, each subject com- tions regarding a) how effective they had found their
pleted a Health Survey that provided a retrospective training classes to have been up to that point for
measure of physical health problems. On this mea- handling stressful situations, b) how effective they
sure, the subjects were provided with a list of com- expected their training would be for assisting them
mon physical health problems, and they indicated in handling the effects of stress in the future, and c)
which problems they had experienced over the past how likely they were to continue to use their training
month and rated each problem experienced in terms activity after the class ended. All responses were made
of how much it interfered with normal daily activi- on 7-point scales (e.g., 1 = not at all effective, 7 =
ties on the same scale used on the Health Record very effective).
Form. Next, each subject completed the LES to ex-
amine the replicability of the high-life-stress classi-
Postintervention Assessments. Immediately af-
fication from the initial screening. On this admin-
istration of the LES, the subjects also rated the impact ter the conclusion of the 11-week training (and con-
of each event experienced on a 4-point scale (0 = trol) period, all subjects participated in sessions in
which they turned in the Health Record Forms and

Psychosomatic Medicine 49:355-365 (1987) 357


completed the Health Survey, BDI, STAI, and SCL- 28). Subjects were encouraged to exercise on their
90 again. In individual sessions, the subjects were own to make up for holidays and absences in order
also administered the Balke treadmill test again, with to maintain a frequency of three exercise sessions per
the same procedures and predicted maximum heart week.
rates used.
Progressive Relaxation Training. Subjects in the
Follow-up Assessments and Debriefing. Ap- progressive relaxation training condition met in a
proximately 2 months after the postintervention as- classroom. During the first several meetings, the sub-
sessments, most of the subjects were met a final time jects were taught an abbreviated version of Jacobson's
during which they completed the Health Survey, BDI, (23) progressive muscle relaxation training proce-
and STAI once again. (Two subjects from the exercise dure (24). Later in the class, other techniques, such
condition, two from the relaxation condition, and six as mental imagery procedures (25), were introduced
from the no-treatment condition were not available and practiced. Toward the end of the class, very few
to participate at follow-up, but comparisons on the explicit instructions were provided, and individual
data collected up to that point indicated that they flexibility in the utilization of the various techniques
did not differ systematically from the other subjects.) taught was encouraged. The relaxation training sub-
After the questionnaires were completed, each sub- jects were taught how to monitor their heart rates so
ject was given a thorough and elaborate debriefing. that they could evaluate the effects of their training
Subjects in both the no-treatment condition and re- on their physiologic arousal.
laxation training condition were offered a program The subjects in the relaxation training class were
of exercise training similar to the one provided to informed that daily practice of these techniques is
the subjects in the exercise training condition. sometimes recommended by clinical practitioners,
and they were encouraged to practice these tech-
Intervention Conditions niques at home on days that the class did not meet.
A total of 29 relaxation class meetings were held, and
The exercise and relaxation training programs were the mean attendance was 24.8 (SD = 2.4, range =
conducted in very comparable ways. Both were 18-28).
structured as 1 credit-hour college courses that met
for one half-hour each day, 3 days per week, over an No-Treatment Controi. The subjects in the no-
11-week period. Both courses were taught by the same treatment control condition were not seen except
instructor who had been trained in both clinical psy- during the sessions when the dependent measures
chology and exercise physiology. were collected.

Aerobic Exercise Training. Subjects in the aero-

bic exercise training condition met at a s-mile indoor RESULTS
track facility. Running and brisk walking were the
aerobic exercise activities used in the class. Each
subject also participated in warm-up and cool-down Life Stress Screening
stretching exercise each day.
Each subject was initially given an individualized All of the subjects who participated in
exercise prescription that was based on the fitness this investigation reported at least five
level determined by the preintervention Balke tread- negative life events on the LES, and that
mill test. The prescription was given in terms of a score corresponded to a percentile rank of
lap pace that would elicit an exercise heart rate that 82 for the distribution of 1051 respondents
was approximately 75% of predicted maximum. Each
subject was trained to monitor his or her own exer- who participated in the initial screening.
cise heart rate. Approximately halfway through the The mean score of 7.2 negative life events
training period, the emphasis was changed from one for the subjects who participated in the
of monitoring exercise intensity to one of monitoring investigation corresponded to a percentile
distance. By the end of the 11-week period, almost rank of 92. From these results it is clear
all of the subjects had at one time or another ran
continously for at least 2 miles. A total of 29 formal that all subjects who participated in this
class meetings were held. The mean number of meet- study were at least in the upper 20% of
ings attended was 23.1 (SD = 3.0, Range = 17 to this stressful life events distribution.

358 Psychosomatic Medicine 49:355-365 (1987)


High-life-stress scores were also ob- postintervention than preintervention

served on the LES administered during the while walking on the 10% grade.
preintervention assessments. The mean Table 1 contains the means and stan-
number of negative life events reported re- dard deviations for the three groups on
gressed to 6.6. The mean negative life these measures. Although the subjects as-
change score (sum of impact ratings for signed to the exercise condition tended to
experienced events designated as "bad") have poorer fitness scores initially, the
was 12.8. This mean is approximately 1 group differences were not statistically re-
standard deviation above the means re- liable (ps > 0.10).
ported in other studies that have used the To determine whether the aerobic ex-
LES with college students (4,17), and these ercise training led to reliable increases in
data further confirm that the subjects in aerobic fitness, analyses of covariance were
the present study had recently experi- conducted on the postintervention fitness
enced high levels of negative life change. scores, with the preintervention scores
The subjects in the exercise training, re- serving as the covariate to remove the ef-
laxation training, and no-treatment con- fects of the (nonsignificant) initial differ-
ditions did not differ reliably on any of ences. The analysis on the aerobic capac-
these measures of life stress (all ps > 0.10). ity estimates yielded a reliable difference
among the conditions, F(2,43) = 8.65, p
= 0.0007, and pairwise comparisons on
Effects of Intervention on
the adjusted cell means using the error term
Aerobic Fitness from the overall analysis (26) indicated that
Changes in fitness were examined by the subjects in the exercise training con-
comparing the heart rate data collected dition showed greater improvements in
during the Balke treadmill test at pre- and fitness than did the subjects in the relax-
postintervention. Improved estimates of ation training condition, F(l,43) = 10.82,
aerobic capacity occurred if a subject was p = 0.002, and the subjects in the no-treat-
able to walk on a steeper grade at post- ment control condition, F(l,43) = 14.13,
Improvements in fitness were also evident than preintervention before his or her heart
if the subjects showed lower heart rates at rate exceeded 90% of predicted maximum.

TABLE 1. Means and Standard Deviations on Measures of Fitness

Pre Post
Males Females Males Females
Measure M SD M SD M SD M SD
Exercise training
Aerobic capacity estimate (ml/kg/ 47.5 5.1 40.2 4.6 51.8 5.1 44.7 5.2
Heart rate at 10% grade (bpm) 137.0 15.7 159.0 15.1 128.2 10.8 146.7 16.1
Relaxation training
Aerobic capacity estimate 50.2 5.0 40.8 2.4 50.4 6.0 41.1 3.4
Heart rate at 10% grade 135.4 10.5 155.1 7.9 136.4 16 6 156.1 12.3
No-treatment control
Aerobic capacity estimate 53.0 7.1 40.4 3.3 51.3 2.3 41.3 4.2
Heart rate at 10% grade 133.5 14.3 154 2 14.3 131.8 6.4 153.7 16.4

Psychosomatic Medicine 49:355-365 (1987) 359


p = 0.0005 (adjusted Ms = 49.6,45.8, and ment session revealed that the subjects in
45.3 ml/kg/min for the subjects in the ex- the relaxation training condition rated their
ercise, relaxation, and control conditions, training as being more beneficial up to that
respectively, collapsed across subject gen- point, F(l,34) = 4.69, p = 0.04, as ex-
der). The relaxation and control condi- pected to provide more benefits in the fu-
tions did not differ reliably, F(l,43) = 0.22. ture, F(l,34) = 6.00, p = 0.02, and as
Analyses on subject gender effects indi- something they were more likely to con-
cated that similar improvements in fitness tinue using, F(l,34) = 5.00, p = 0.03, than
occurred for both the males and females the subjects in the exercise training con-
in the exercise training condition. (It might dition rated their training experience (Ms
be noted that male and female subjects were [SDs] = 3.9 [1.4], 4.4 [1.4], and 4.6 [0.9]
not found to show any statistically reliable for the exercise condition and 4.7 [0.9], 5.4
differences in the amount of change ob- [1.0], and 5.4 [1.1] for the relaxation con-
served from preintervention levels on any dition, respectively). These results indi-
of the measures examined. Males and fe- cate that after participating in the training
males were therefore both included to- conditions for approximately 5 weeks, the
gether in all reported statistical analyses.) subjects in the relaxation training condi-
Similar results were obtained from the tion had higher subjective impressions and
analysis of covariance conducted on the expectations for the effectiveness of their
10% grade heart rate data. A reliable dif- training than did the subjects in the ex-
ference among the conditions was ob- ercise training class.
tained, F(2,43) = 6.66, p = 0.003, and
pairwise comparisons indicated that this Influence of Interventions on Self-
heart rate decreased more for the subjects Reported Physical and
in the exercise condition than for subjects Psychologic Health
in the relaxation condition, F(1,43) = 10.59, Table 2 contains the means and stan-
p = 0.002, or in the no-treatment condi- dard deviations for the three groups on the
tion, F(l,43) = 6.99, p = 0.011 (adjusted self-reported measures of physical and
Ms = 135.2, 146.0, and 144.0 bpm, re- psychologic health. To examine group dif-
spectively). Overall, these results indicate ferences in the changes observed across
that the exercise training condition led to time, analyses of covariance were per-
reliable improvements in cardiovascular formed on the scores obtained at each
fitness. The aerobic capacity estimates administration, with the respective prein-
suggested that the subjects in the exercise tervention scores serving as the covariate.
training condition showed approximately The Health Record Form and the Health
a 10% improvement in fitness compared Survey were used to provide measures of
to changes of less than 1% for the other physical health. Total scores were ob-
two conditions. tained for each administration of each
measure by simply adding the severity rat-
ings of all reported problems. The analyses
Subjective Impressions and of covariance did not reveal reliable dif-
Expectations about Interventions ferences among the conditions (all ps >
One-way analyses of variance on the 0.10), and therefore it appears that neither
subjective ratings of the training classes training program had a systematic effect
made during the midintervention assess- on general physical health.

360 Psychosomatic Medicine 49:355-365 (1987)


TABLE 2. Means and Standard Deviations on Measures of Self-Reported Physical

and Psychologic Health
Condition Pre Mid Post Fol low-up
Exercise training
Health record form — _ 7.5 5.7 4.6 2.9 — —
Health survey 14.4 8.3 13.6 6.9 12.4 8.3 11.2 7.8
BDI 7.8 6.4 4.7 3.1 4.1 4.5 2.3 2.2
STAI 40.9 10.3 37.1 7.7 36.8 8.9 33.9 8.4
SCL-90-CSI 0.6 0.6 0.5 0.4 0.5 0.5 — —
Relaxation training
Health record form _ — 5.6 3.9 5.6 3.1 — _
Health survey 14.9 6.9 13.7 8.7 14.2 8.9 11.2 10.1
BDI 6.9 4.9 6 8 4.7 5.4 5.6 4.8 5.5
STAI 39.6 9.0 40.0 8.7 39 0 10.4 36.2 10.3
SCI-90-GSI 0.5 0.4 0.5 0.3 05 0.4
No-treatment control
Health record form _ — 9.8 7.0 6.6 5.1
Health survey 14.4 8.7 13.8 9.1 11.9 7.0 7.0 3.6
BDI 7.0 69 6.9 5 8 5.0 4.3 4.4 4.1
STAI 41.8 11.6 40.5 10.5 37.0 9.1 37.0 10.6
SCL-90-CSI 0.6 0.4 0.5 0.4 0.5 0.4 — —

With regard to self-reported psycho- p = 0.07. These results are presented

logic health, the analysis of covariance on graphically in Figure 1.
the BDI scores revealed a reliable differ- An inspection of the amount of im-
ence in depression among the conditions provement observed on the BDI for the
at the time of the mid-intervention assess- subjects in the exercise condition indi-
ment, F(2,51) = 3.94, p = 0.03. Pairwise cated that those who were the most de-
comparisons on the adjusted cell means pressed prior to the intervention showed
indicated that the subjects in the exercise the greater improvement (r = 0.89, p <
training condition showed greater reduc- 0.0001). This effect is almost certainly due
tions in depression from preintervention in part to a floor effect since those with
to midintervention than did the subjects relatively low initial levels of depression
in the relaxation training condition, F(l,51) had relatively less room for improvement.
= 5.95, p = 0.018, and those in the no- Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that
treatment control condition, F(l,51) = 6.03, out of the six subjects in the exercise train-
p = 0.018, and that the latter two groups ing condition who began the study in the
were not reliably different from each other, clinically depressed range (BDI > 10 [27]),
F(l,51) = 0.00. There were no reliable dif- five of them (83%) showed an improve-
ferences among the conditions at the post- ment to a clinically normal range (BDI <
intervention assessment F(2,51) = 1.03, 10) by the midintervention assessment.
but there was a trend that approached sta- The analyses of covariance conducted
tistical reliability for the group differences on the STAI scores, the Global Symptom
to reemerge at follow-up, F(2,41) = 2.91, Index score from the SCL-90, and the sub-

Psychosomatic Medicine 49:355-365 (1987) 361


that subjects in all of the groups showed

some recovery from the effects of stress.
This general improvement may have lim-
RELAXATION ited the opportunities to observe the full
I health benefits of the training programs.
CO _
LU 5
The subjects who participated in this
LJJ experiment repeatedly reported high lev-
NO-RX els of life stress, and thus it appears that
they were the high-risk type of subject for
whom concerns about physical and psy-
chologic health have been expressed. With
regard to the exercise training, the tread-
mill tests revealed that the subjects who
PRE MID POST FO-UP participated in the exercise training con-
dition showed increases in fitness as as-
Fig. 1. Beck Depression Inventory scores for sub- sessed by cardiovascular indicators,
jects in the aerobic exercise training, pro-
gressive relaxation training, and no-treat- whereas the subjects in the other two con-
ment control conditions at the preinter- ditions showed little change in fitness. This
vention, midintervention, postintervention, indicates that the exercise training con-
and follow-up points. dition was conducted successfully in terms
of improving levels of fitness.
scale scores from the SCL-90 did not reveal With regard to the effects of the inter-
any reliable conditions (all ps > 0.10). From ventions on psychologic health, it was
these results, it can be concluded that the found that after the first 5 weeks of training
effects of the aerobic exercise training on the subjects in the exercise training con-
the subjects' psychologic functioning were dition reported reliably greater reductions
limited to the BDI measure of depression. in depression than did subjects in either
the relaxation training condition or the no-
treatment control condition. Those differ-
Effects Associated with Time
ences diminished over the next 5 weeks
The subjects in all three conditions ap- of training, probably owing to the general
peared to report decreasing levels of symp- decline in depression observed over that
toms across time. To test that statistically, time span, but the differences tended to
a series of groups by trials analyses of vari- reemerge 8 weeks later because subjects in
ance were conducted on the scores of the the exercise training condition continued
three conditions at the various assessment to show declines in depression. The psy-
points. Those analyses revealed reliable chologic benefits of the exercise training
decreases over time on the Health Record were limited to depression as measured by
Form, F(l,46) = 5.66, p = 0.02, BDI, the BDI in this study. Differential effects
F(2,104) = 8.82, p = 0.0003, STAI,F(2,100) were not found on measures of trait anx-
= 6.29, p = 0.003, and the SCL-90, F(2,104) iety, for example, and the present inves-
= 5.11, p = 0.008. These results suggest tigation is consistent with an earlier one

362 Psychosomatic Medicine 49:355-365 (1987)


(16) in suggesting that a relatively brief present study. They were not seeking any
aerobic training program has no system- treatment on their own. In addition to at-
atic effect on the psychologic symptoma- tempting to replicate these results using
tology assessed by the SCL-90. clinical samples, future research might also
It is noteworthy that the patterning of be directed towards examining the possi-
results concerning depression that were ble mechanisms responsible for the anti-
found in this experiment are similar to those depressant effects of exercise. For exam-
found in an earlier study (15). In both stud- ple, aerobic exercise training may affect
ies, exercise training was found to be more mood through either biochemical (32, 33)
effective than relaxation training for re- or psychologic (e.,g., enhanced self-con-
ducing depression. Furthermore, in both cept related to improvements in fitness)
studies the full effect of this finding was means or both. If the mechanism(s) re-
apparent after only 5 weeks of participa- sponsible can be specified, then more spe-
tion. The methodologic improvements cific exercise prescriptions aimed at pro-
introduced in this experiment (e.g., an ducing optimal effects can be developed.
alternative training program involving Contrary to the expectations based on
comparable amounts of time and contact) previous correlational research (4), the ex-
and the consistency of the findings across ercise training did not have a reliable in-
the two experiments provide strong sup- fluence on subjects' self-reported physical
port for the suggestion that regular aerobic health. One possibility is that the general
exercise is effective for reducing mild to improvement in health reported by most
moderate levels of depression. It is also subjects over the course of the experiment
noteworthy that in the present investiga- may have obviated the effects of the treat-
tion the exercise training had the greatest ments. Another possibility is that aerobic
effect despite the fact that the subjects in fitness may serve more of a prophylactic
the relaxation training condition per- role rather than a corrective one with re-
ceived and expected their training to be gard to the influence of life stress on phys-
more effective for dealing with stressful ical illness. The results of the previous re-
situations. In light of these findings, it ap- search are consistent with the prophylactic
pears that the effects of exercise training role because in that research it was found
on depression observed in the present study that subjects who were already high in fit-
cannot be attributed to placebo or expec- ness experienced fewer physical health
tancy effects. problems following life stress than did
Although it has been suggested by oth- subjects who were low in fitness. In the
ers that frequent aerobic exercise may be present experiment, improvements in fit-
an effective treatment for depression in ness were introduced after the onset of the
clinical settings (28-30), there appears to stressors and therefore may have come too
be no adequately controlled experimental late.
demonstration of this effect on a patient In summary, the results of this investi-
sample (15, 31). The results of the present gation indicated that aerobic exercise
investigation should only be generalized training was more effective than relaxa-
to a population of college students who tion training or no treatment for reducing
are experiencing high levels of life stress. depression following exposure to high lev-
It should be emphasized that these sub- els of life stress. This beneficial effect ap-
jects were recruited to participate in the peared after only 5 weeks of periodic ex-

Psvchosomatic Medicine 49:355-365 (1987) 363


ercise. In contrast, neither exercise training The authors would like to thank Tom
nor relaxation training was superior to a R- Thomas and Wayne Osness for making
no-treatment condition for reducing phys- possible the aerobic fitness testing and ex-
ical illnesses following life stress. It is pos- ercise training condition. Appreciation is
sible that frequent aerobic exercise pro- QJso due to B. Kent Houston and Douglas
vides an assortment of prophylactic and R- Denney for their comments. This pro-
therapeutic effects with regard to the ef- J e c t WQs supported in part by a disserta-
fects of life stress on physical and psy- tion fellowship awarded to the first author
chologic health, and additional research by the Graduate School of the University
seems necessary to further delineate the °f Kansas,
nature of these effects.


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