Northeastern University studies show that group exercise can reduce depression in overweight women

October 31, 2000

Group exercise can reduce depression in overweight women, although it had no effect on actual weight loss in the short term, according to Lorna Hayward, EdD, MPH, PT, assistant professor, Department of Physical Therapy, Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Northeastern University, who was the principal researcher on two obesity studies. "The studies demonstrated that there is a need for a long-term approach," said Hayward. "Once people feel better about themselves, other health indicators could change."

A complex health behavior that is difficult to treat, obesity affects quality of life and is associated with other chronic ailments, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and respiratory dysfunction. Its economic impact is estimated at $100 billion a year. One third of Americans, especially women - non-white women between the ages of 50 and 59, in particular - are obese.

Hayward said that former popular drugs such as fenfluramine and phentermine (fen-phen) and dexfenfluramine (Redux) pose overall health risks and fail to address behaviors to maintain weight loss. "Obesity is a chronic problem that needs long-term attention just like any other chronic disease," she said. "Quick fixes like fen-phen or Slimfast just don't seem to be successful."

In 1998, Hayward conducted a six-month weight-loss study with eight women funded by the Research and Scholarship Development Fund at Northeastern University. It focused on supervised aerobic exercise and relaxation training twice a week for an hour and a half. All participants had a body mass index indicating obesity, as defined by the National Center for Health Statistics. The average weight of the participants was 229 pounds. At the start of the study, five of the eight women exhibited "mild to moderate" levels of depression according to the Beck Depression Inventory. The second measurement using the Beck Depression Inventory score showed a decrease, and by the final score, only one of eight women was classified as mildly depressed. No significant weight loss was recorded.

"A successful restructuring of behavior around weight loss includes a healthy social support system and a healthy reward and punishment system," said Hayward. "And a realization that you have to take care of yourself, and place your needs ahead of others when necessary."

Hayward's first weight-loss study in 1997, was funded by the Kenneth B. Schwartz Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. It enrolled 18 women whose average weight was 218 pounds. The nine-month, multidisciplinary, program focused on nutrition, mental health, exercise instruction, Tai Chi relaxation, and acupuncture.

Documenting her findings, Hayward co-wrote "Group Exercise Reduces Depression in Obese Women Without Weight Loss" in Perceptual and Motor Skills, in conjunction with Annemarie C. Sullivan, Department of Cardiopulmonary Sciences, and Joseph R. Libonati, formerly with the Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Cardiopulmonary Sciences, both at Northeastern. Hayward also co-wrote "The Process of Restructuring and the Treatment of Obesity in Women," in Health Care for Women International.
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Boston-based Northeastern University, a private research institution, is a world leader in practice-oriented education. Building on its flagship co-operative education program, Northeastern links classroom learning with workplace experience and integrates professional preparation with study in the liberal arts and sciences. Representing a wide variety of cultural and ethnic groups, nearly 12,000 undergraduates come from throughout the United States and dozens of other countries to experience Northeastern's dynamic learning environment. It recently broke ground on a $37 million health sciences complex, slated for completion in 2002.

Northeastern University

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