Exercise May Help Prevent New Bouts of Depression

And it's free of nasty side effects.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
March 5, 2020

When it comes to exercise and depression, there are generally two camps: those who workout as a way to keep their depression at bay and swear by its mind-boosting effects, and those who struggle to get out of bed and can’t imagine breaking a sweat is an effective way to manage mental health conditions. If, like me, you fall into that second group, the last thing you probably want to hear is more evidence that physical activity can help with depression, but that’s exactly what new research out of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston found.

Specifically, the study, which was published in the journal Depression & Anxiety, found that people who exercised for at least a few hours each week were less likely to be diagnosed with a new episode of depression, even if they are genetically predisposed to the condition. Though there have been other studies on the positive impact physical activity has on depression, this is the first study to demonstrate its efficacy despite one’s genetic risk for the illness.

To conduct the study, the researchers used data from nearly 8,000 participants in a biobank, which included surveys about their physical activity levels and mental health diagnoses, including their genetic risk for depression. Those who were genetically predisposed to develop depression, but who also exercised regularly, were less likely to actually develop depression — even among those with the highest genetic risk for the condition. 

“Our findings strongly suggest that, when it comes to depression, genes are not destiny and that being physically active has the potential to neutralize the added risk of future episodes in individuals who are genetically vulnerable,” Karmel Choi, Ph.D., a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “On average, about 35 additional minutes of physical activity each day may help people to reduce their risk and protect against future depression episodes.”

Wondering what kind of exercise can help towards preventing new bouts of depression? The researchers noted that participants found success with activities like aerobic exercise, dance and exercise machines, and lower-intensity forms, including yoga and stretching. So if you’re on the fence about whether to sign up for that new pilates class, it may be a good idea to give it a try.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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