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Physical activity reduces the risk of subsequent depression for older adults

William J. Strawbridge
Public Health Institute, Berkeley, California
Stephane Deleger
University of Texas
Robert E. Roberts_, & George A. Kaplan_
University of Michigan

Published in 'American Journal of Epidemiology', 156 (4), 328-334, 2002

This study examined the protective effects of physical activity on depression using a broad community sample of older adults, including those with some form of physical disability.  Participants were considered disabled if they experienced difficulty or needed assistance to walk a quarter of a mile, walk up 10 stairs, get up from a kneeling position, and stand up after being seated in a chair.    

Depression was assessed using widely accepted diagnostic criteria for mental disorders and physical activity was measured using a short questionnaire, which asked participants about their frequency of physical exercise, participation in active sports, taking long walks, and swimming.  Responses were recorded on a scale of 'never', 'sometimes', or 'often'.

Demographic variables, such as financial problems, local community problems, chronic health problems, health behaviours (e.g. smoking, alcohol consumption), and social support were also considered.

The researchers used data from 1,947 participants that was collected in 1994 and again at a 5-year follow-up in 1999.  56% were female and the average age was 63 years.

The results indicated that the people who exercised the most were less likely to be depressed compared with those who were physically inactive.  Furthermore, physical activity measured in 1994 was protective for subsequent depression five years later, regardless of any physical impairment.

Physical disability was strongly associated with depression and participants who reported physical impairments were four times more likely to be depressed than those who reported no mobility impairment.  Females and those with fewer than 12 years education were more likely to be depressed, as were those under financial strain and those living in communities with high levels of traffic and noise, crime problems, poor street lighting, and limited availability of public transport.  Smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, and lack of social support were also linked to higher levels of depression.

The researchers suggest that physically active older people may interact and form social relationships with other people as a result of their activity thus increasing social support networks.  Moreover, those who engage in high levels of physical activity may also be more likely to adopt other health promoting behaviours, such as not smoking, not drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and avoiding obesity by maintaining healthy eating habits.

The authors argue that further research to determine the interaction between these various health promoting behaviours would be beneficial for health professionals advising patients about the benefits of physical activity for both physical and psychological well-being.

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