Just as suicide rates are spiking and a national conversation has begun on to how to fight depression, a disease that impacts 16 million adults in the U.S., a new study shows that exercise may be a key weapon in the battle.
Published in JAMA Psychiatry, this new study shows that exercise combats depression, particularly in middle-age. Led by Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, director of the center for depression research and clinical care at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, the researchers found that being fit can lower the risk of developing depression. Bonus: working out also fights the risk of developing heart disease and dying early.
“Depression doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” says Trivedi, senior author of the paper, as Time notes. “Especially for people who are older, depression has a complicated relationship with other major medical diseases.”
Trivedi’s team examined data from nearly 18,000 people, who were an average age of 50 and enrolled in the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study, an ongoing study of the role of exercise on health. The data included information on people’s exercise habits, as well as their depression diagnoses, their heart-related issues and, in some cases, their cause of death.
While the causes and types of depression are varied, the report concluded that: “Men and women who are more physically fit at midlife have a lower risk of depression and cardiovascular mortality after a diagnosis of depression in later life, suggesting that fitness is an important part of a primary preventive strategy for cardiovascular disease and depression across the lifespan.”
The study tracked people for almost 40 years. They found that people who exercised more had a 16% lower risk of depression when they were older. The higher fitness group also cut their risk of dying from heart disease by 61 percent.
“Exercise not only reduces your risk of heart disease but also improves your depression, so I really see it as a bonafide treatment related to depression,” says Trivedi, as Time notes.
Indeed, as the Harvard Health Letter suggests, exercise might even be as effective as medication in certain cases. It’s a low-cost, all-natural method of treatment.
“For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression,” says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School as the Harvard Health Letter cited. “In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.”
You don’t have to be a doctor to know that powering down your smart phone and lacing up your running shoes or diving into the pool can make you feel a lot better, but this sort of research suggests that working out may well be a key to survival in our high-stress world.
Can exercise battle depression?