One of the important benefits of exercise is how it can enhance mood and a sense of well being (1). Chalk it up to endorphins and other “feel good” chemicals in the brain that are released when we’re physically active. That at least partly explains why exercise is prescribed – often in combination with other therapies – to help reduce symptoms of depression (1).
This widespread, chronic and often debilitating condition is particularly common among older adults (2). To make matters worse, depression is a difficult condition to treat (3). Many people are reluctant to admit to a mental illness (4) or don’t respond well to treatment with medication (5). People who do not receive adequate treatment for depression are at increased risk of other health problems (such as heart disease), and can suffer from lowered quality of life (2;6).
Searching for solutions, researchers conducted studies to find out if exercise has the same depression-fighting benefits for older adults. Eighteen of those studies, involving more than 1,000 older adults with depression, were part of a systematic review (7). Participants engaged in various types of exercise – mostly in a supervised setting – in programs that lasted between six and 24 weeks. Their before and after depression “scores,” were compared with those of control groups who did not take part in the exercise programs (although some studies included an equal amount of social interaction) and received the usual care.
What the research tells us
Exercise was shown to have a ‘moderate’ effect in helping to combat depression in the study participants. That’s encouraging and supports recommendations for making exercise part of the treatment plans for older adults diagnosed with depression, or who are at risk of depression. According to the evidence, all types of exercise are beneficial but “alternative” programs, such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong, were found to be most effective. The review authors suggest that may be due to the emphasis on both the body and mind through slow, controlled movements, meditation, breathing and relaxation techniques.
Several other studies have demonstrated similar findings. For example, a systematic review of four randomized controlled trials found that older adults who took part in Tai Chi sessions on a regular basis reported significant decreases in depression symptoms (8). Tai Chi is a particularly good exercise for older adults as there is minimal risk and it is suitable for those with limited mobility and/or medical conditions that prevent them from engaging in more demanding physical activities (8).
Another more recent systematic review of 33 randomized controlled trials found that resistance training (a type of exercise meant to increase strength) led to significant decreases in symptoms of depression. It did not matter how much resistance training a person did, how healthy they were, or how much their strength improved—depressive symptoms were reduced regardless (9).
Depression can have severe consequences for older adults and better ways to diagnose and treat the disorder are urgently needed. Though it may not provide a cure, exercise can be recommended as an easy and safe addition to depression treatment – with few negative side effects and many additional benefits – to help reduce depression symptoms and promote a healthier outlook.