Depression: Even a little exercise could help reduce your risk

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A long-term study finds that even a little daily exercise can help reduce the risk of depression. RichLegg/Getty Images
  • Exercise can help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and even improve brain health.
  • Evidence is mounting that it can also ease symptoms of depression, the leading cause of mental health-related illnesses.
  • However, advice varies on how much exercise is needed for a beneficial effect.
  • Now, a 10-year study in Ireland has found that even small amounts of exercise, such as a 20-minute walk most days, can help reduce the risk of depression in older adults.

Depression, a chronic feeling of emptiness, sadness, or an inability to experience pleasure, is one of the most common mental health conditions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it hits around 5% of adults around the world.

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In the United States, in 2020, 21 million adults (8.4% of all adults) had at least one major depressive episode, with higher rates in women than men.

In the UK, government statistics show that one in six people experienced symptoms of depression in 2021-2022.

Treatments for depression depend on the type of depression a person is experiencing, but may include antidepressants, psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or a combination of therapy and medication. They are effective for many people but depression can come back once treatment is stopped.

There is growing evidence that lifestyle changes can reduce depressive symptoms. A 2014 analysis of 21 studies found that a diet high in fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains may be associated with a reduced risk of depression. It’s a Revision 2022 of studies have found that exercise relieves depressive symptoms.

However, few studies have looked at the amount of exercise needed to have a positive impact on depression.

Now, a 10-year study has found that even small amounts of exercise can reduce depression among seniors ages 50 and older.

The study, which was funded by the Health Research Board (HRB) Ireland, and appears in JAMA network openfound that a brisk 20-minute walk 5 times a week significantly reduced the risk of depression.

The author of the study, Dr. Eamon Laird, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Limerick, Ireland, said Medical News Today why the team conducted the study:

Depression is unfortunately increasingly prevalent in the elderly population and is associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease (CVD), cognitive decline, mortality and suicide. [] Physical activity has previously been shown to be associated with a reduced risk of depression; however, no one has yet investigated the lowest possible dose of physical activity that could provide benefits.

The researchers included 4,016 participants from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging (TILDA), a large-scale longitudinal study that aims to improve people’s experience of aging in Ireland. They collected data at five time points between October 2009 and December 2018.

At each time point, the researchers collected detailed information on demographic, health, lifestyle, and social factors through a self-reported questionnaire, a nurse health assessment, or an interview.

They rated depressive symptoms using the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression (CES-D) short form. From this, they classified major depression as a CES-D score greater than or equal to nine and/or a major depressive episode at any of the data collection time points.

At each data point, participants self-reported their physical activity for the previous 7 days. They were to record how many days and for how long they did vigorous, moderate, and walking activities.

The researchers then estimated the total number of metabolic activity equivalent minutes (METs) per week for each individual and categorized them into low, moderate, or high physical activity.

We found that older adults who performed a minimum of 20 minutes per day (for 5 days per week) of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) had a 16% lower risk of depressive symptoms and a 43% lower likelihood of depression [than those undertaking no exercise]Dr. Laird told us.

Across the three categories of exercise, the researchers saw an increase in benefits as their level of exercise increased. Individuals who exercised the most were 20% less likely to suffer from depression than those in the low exercise category.

Even people who got only a minimal amount of exercise were 16 percent less likely to suffer from depression than those who didn’t exercise.

Twenty minutes was the minimum dose, but we also observed that the higher the activity level, the greater the mental health benefits.

Dr. Eamon Laird

Exercise also reduced the risk of both depressive symptoms and major depression for participants with chronic illnesses, and the effect similarly increased with greater levels of activity, Dr. Laird.

Particularly for those with chronic illnesses, for depressive symptoms, participants showed a significantly reduced risk (8%) at the WHO guideline threshold of 30 minutes per day [per] 5 days [a] week, although the largest reductions occurred with increasing activity dose, the researcher said MNT extension.

Essentially, those with chronic diseases may find more benefit and it could be a range of anti-inflammatory mechanisms, immune function, heart-brain dialogue, improved muscle function etc, he added.

Dr Thomas MacLaren, consultant psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health, who was not involved in the study, welcomed the findings.

Chronic health problems are known to make depression worse and are even a risk factor for developing depression. The study’s finding of a dose-dependent relationship for this group provides an extremely encouraging sign that it’s worth getting regular exercise and even increasing daily routines, such as brisk walking, to further boost your mood, he told us.

There are several reasons why exercise may reduce the risk of developing depression or relieve depressive symptoms.

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis., which affects motivation and mood and decreases reactivity to stress. It also increases the level of endorphins, the body’s natural pain and stress reliever.

And the effects aren’t just physical, as Dr. MacLaren explained:

Exercise helps the body release endorphins and improves fitness levels. These positive effects can naturally improve your mood. It can also have an indirect effect on regulating your daily routine and providing you with more social contacts, which is really important for fighting depression.

Dr. Laird agreed, emphasizing that exercise should be part of a healthy lifestyle for maximum benefit.

Try building it [exercise] into a routine with hobbies or activities they enjoy and would recommend with others as social interactions, particularly with activity, can also have extra mental health benefits, she said.

Remember that it is a component and that eating and living a healthy lifestyle will also provide additional benefits beyond physical activity, Dr. Laird added.

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