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Exercise May Be Best Remedy for Depression in Elderly

Published February 28, 2013 1:14 PM by Brian Garavaglia

Depression is a frequent issue among older adults. However, depression can do more than affect the mood of the older adult. Depression can lead to greater levels of morbidity and mortality among older adults. It can have a pervasive impact on their mind and body. Scientists at Duke University have found that exercise may possibly be the best form of intervention for enhancing an older adult's mood and ameliorating depression. 

The researchers found that exercise was superior to those who were treated with antidepressant forms of medication. The researchers studied 156 individuals who suffered from major depression. All were 50 years of age and older. Those who engaged in exercise a minimum of three times each week over a 16 week period demonstrated superior results in ameliorating their depression when compared to those who took just medicine or even those who engaged in medicine and exercise together.  

The researchers also found that exercise alone was also a lasting form of therapy. In a six month follow-up, those who engaged in exercise exclusively as a form of therapeutic intervention experienced the lowest rate of return in their depression. Among this group only eight percent experienced a return in their depression. This was a marked difference when compared to the 38 percent return in depression found among the drug-only group and 31 percent found among the drug and exercise combined group. 

It has been stated that approximately 15 percent of the elderly experience depression during some point in their lives and an additional 25 percent are estimated to experience persistent sadness that lasts for two weeks or longer (Livni, 2012). Since many older adults take at least four or more medicines, many mood problems can be instigated or even exacerbated by the medicines that they use. Therefore, these results that have been found in the study, demonstrating that exercise by itself could be more beneficial than adding an additional medication is an uplifting finding.  Furthermore, since many older adults often have greater sensitivity to medications, even the addition of an antidepressant medication can greatly enhance the likelihood for medicine-induced side-effects, some of which can also influence the mood of the elderly.   

What is interesting is the finding that exercise alone was even more beneficial than exercise and medication together. Therefore, exercise may be providing other elements that may be helping to relieve the older adult of their depression. Furthermore, for many older adults, the possibility of the antidepressant medication having a smaller therapeutic window, or possibly even a larger one, as compared to the younger population, may be one reason why the exercise and medication group did not do as well as the exercise alone group, as well as having a higher depression relapse rate. 

It is also possible that since exercise is also influencing other parts of the body such as the cardiovascular, respiratory, immunological, and endocrinological systems just to mention a few, the positive influence of exercise can be the result of multiple body system influence. Moreover, the interactive social experiences that exercise often creates can also be an additional reason for the enhanced success found in this study.   

One fact that is known is that as individuals increase in age, they typically become increasingly sedentary as well. That in itself is very counterproductive for sound health and aging and can not only lead to mood disturbances but aid in the development of other forms of morbidity that are often attributed to aging. However, exercise has been increasingly demonstrating some very important mental health effects. The goal of getting more older adults to exercise will undoubtedly benefit the older adult's mental health, both therapeutically and preventatively. Furthermore, it will also provide an overall benefit to the older adult's health status in general.        

Although more information needs to be gathered from further studies on just how efficacious exercise is in enhancing the older adult's mood, especially when compared with pharmacological forms of intervention, the results in themselves should not be all that surprising. 

Although many individuals have become enamored with a pharmacological form of intervention, viewing them as necessary to treat disease and often maintain health, exercise is increasingly being viewed as an important form of medication. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine has been advancing its campaign to view "Exercise as Medicine," in an effort to encourage more individuals, including the elderly, to attain the proper dose and frequency of usage of exercise to benefit one's overall health.  

Given that we already have a substantially large body of knowledge regarding the overall importance of exercise, especially for enhancing a healthy longevity, more effort probably should be given toward advancing exercise as an important and needed form of medication, as well as an important and necessary part of one's lifestyle. 


Livni E. (2012).

For more articles on exercise see:

Exercises for a Healthy Heart

Ways to Work Out

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posted by Brian Garavaglia


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About this Blog

    Brian Garavaglia, PhD
    Occupation: Long-term care administrator
    Setting: Sterling Heights, Mich.
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