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Physical exercise is an important preventative medicine for depression

young woman running

By Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Silvia Lucchetti - published on 08/12/19

Scientific studies show that even a little exercise reduces the risk.

Many scientific studies have shown the importance of physical activity in preventing and treating depression, the most common mental illness in western society. According to a study published in the prestigious periodical American Journal of Psychiatry, led by King’s College London and carried out by an international team of Belgian, Australian, Swedish, and American researchers, depression can be prevented long-term through physical exercise, and this is applicable for people of all ages, from young people to the elderly (as reported in The Telegraph by Sarah Knapton).

The researchers collected data from 49 different studies involving 266,939 people without mental illness to see if physical exercise led to a reduced risk of developing depression. This group of people, with a practically equal distribution between the sexes, was monitored for more than seven years, at the end of which surprising results were seen: compared to people who engaged in little physical exercise, people who engaged in 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week showed a significantly lower probability of developing depression during the period of the study.

“We found that higher levels of physical activity were protective from future depression in children, adults and older adults, across every continent and after taking into account other important factors such as body mass index, smoking and physical health conditions,” said study co-author Brendon Stubbs, quoted in The Telegraph.

Another important research paper, published in 2017 in the same scientific journal, reported the results of a study that followed nearly 34,000 people in Norway, and which concluded that people who don’t engage in physical exercise have a 44% higher probability of suffering from depression than people who do even just a little exercise (one or two hours a week). This study was carried out under the auspices of the Black Dog Institute of Sidney, Australia, a non-profit “dedicated to understanding, preventing and treating mental illness.”

The name “Black Dog” comes from a common metaphor used by people with clinical depression to describe it as a sort of dark companion that hounds them to the point of despair. Among the famous people to employ this image was Winston Churchill, although reportedly this use of “black dog” dates back at least to the late 1700s.

The study came to the conclusion that “12 percent of cases of depression could have been prevented by one hour of physical activity a week.” Professor Samuel Harvey, lead author of the study, says in an article on the Black Dog Institute website, “We’ve known for some time that exercise has a role to play in treating symptoms of depression, but this is the first time we have been able to quantify the preventative potential of physical activity in terms of reducing future levels of depression. These findings are exciting because they show that even relatively small amounts of exercise – from one hour per week – can deliver significant protection against depression.”

Still, it’s important to keep in mind that exercise only reduces the risk of depression; it’s not a guaranteed cure. People who know or suspect they are suffering from clinical depression should seek professional help from a qualified mental health practitioner so they can help them search for the right combination of treatments (exercise, medicine, psychotherapy, etc.) to deal with their condition.


Read more:
This artist used his paintings to conquer depression


Read more:
The powerful impact exercise has on our emotions — and vice-versa

Health and WellnessMental Health
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