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Just 20 minutes of moderate activity a day for five days a week can significantly lower the risk of depressive symptoms for people over 50 who have conditions commonly linked to depression, such as diabetes, heart disease and chronic pain, a new study finds.
People with diabetes have twice the risk of depression, according to Diabetes UK, and a 2017 study found that patients with heart disease are twice as likely to die if they develop depression after their diagnosis. According to another 2017 study, up to 85% of people with chronic pain experience major depression.
However, people with no chronic illness in the study needed to do moderate to vigorous exercise for two hours a day to see improvement in depressive symptoms, according to the study’s lead author. Eamon Laird, a researcher at the Physical Activity for Health Research Center at the University of Limerick in Ireland.
Moderate physical activity is usually defined as one that is “breathtaking” so that it is difficult to talk while doing it. Examples include brisk walking, cycling, dancing, playing tennis, or running up and down stairs. Increasing the level of exercise to vigorous — such as jogging or running, where breathing is rapid and heart rate increases — can reduce the time spent exercising, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“What’s unique (about this study) is that it’s the first and largest study of a longitudinal cohort — with and without chronic disease — to try to find out what was the lowest minimum dose to detect a difference in depression. take,” Laird said.
“We are not advocating reduced activity levels in any population, but these findings suggest that even lower than recommended doses may protect the mental health of older adults over time,” he added. “These doses may be more achievable because many older adults may find it difficult to exercise for a variety of reasons.”
A study of 10 years
The study, published Monday in the journal JAMA Network Open, followed more than 4,000 Irish adults with an average age of 61 for 10 years. The participants, who were part of the Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging, were evaluated every two years. They were asked about their physical activity and exercise level and given tests to determine the number of depressive symptoms they exhibited – if the symptoms were exaggerated, they were classified as major depression.
“Examples of questionnaire symptoms included: I had trouble keeping my mind on what I was doing; My sleep was restless; I felt like I couldn’t shake the blues off even with the help of my family and friends; etc.,” Laird said in an email.
People who had experienced a major depressive episode in the past 12 months were also placed in the major depression group. An episode is defined as a period of two weeks or more during which the person experienced fatigue, feelings of sadness and hopelessness, loss of interest in activities or trouble sleeping, weight gain or loss, or suicidal thoughts.
The study found that the more time people spent exercising, the better. People who exercised moderately for 20 minutes a day, five days a week, had a 16% reduction in depressive symptoms and a 43% reduction in the risk of major depression compared to those who did not exercise, the study found.
Those who exercised for two hours a day benefited the most, with a 23% reduction in depressive symptoms and a 49% lower risk of major depression, according to the study.
“The higher the dose of physical activity, the greater the mental health benefits for depression,” Larid said.
Unfortunately, over the 10 years, the overall rate of depression for the entire group rose from an average of 8% to 12%, while antidepressant use increased from about 6% to 10%. However, exercise levels also decreased by about 10% for the group over the duration of the study.
The study’s findings weren’t surprising, Larid said, pointing to extensive past research showing a strong link between exercise and reducing depression. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2022 found that brisk walking of just 2.5 hours per week reduced depressive symptoms by 25%. The same study also found that doing half that amount lowered the risk of depression by 18%.
Another large review published in February found that getting physical is 1.5 times more effective at reducing stress, anxiety and mild to moderate symptoms of depression than antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy, which is considered a gold standard treatment.
Exercise does more for a person’s health than just relieve depression. It keeps the body in top shape, allowing it to function efficiently and better ward off all kinds of diseases.
“Exercise is just absolutely amazing,” Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, in an earlier interview with CNN.
“If you combine that with a more plant-based diet, de-stressing, getting enough sleep and connecting with others, that’s your magic recipe,” he added. “It’s the fountain of youth, if you will.”
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