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Fitness in midlife lowers depression and cardiovascular mortality

Photo: Image courtesy of Adam Monteith of Evoker
It’s widely understood that exercise benefits physical health, but increasingly research is showing that it can also ward off mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

A recent study in JAMA Psychiatry investigated whether higher cardiorespiratory fitness in midlife is associated with a lower risk of mortality after a diagnosis of depression in those over the age of 65.

The study showed that men and women who are more physically fit at midlife have a lower risk of depression and cardiovascular death after a diagnosis of depression in later life.

The cohort study of Medicare-eligible patients revealed that higher levels of fitness in midlife were associated with a 16 per cent lower risk of depression. Also, after a diagnosis of depression, higher levels of fitness were associated with a 56 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular mortality.
While many studies have shown the impact of physical fitness on mental health and cardiovascular disease, this study suggests that fitness is an integral part of a primary preventive strategy for cardiovascular disease and depression across the lifespan.

Director of epidemiology at The Cooper Institute and lead author of the study Dr Benjamin L. Willis reported two important findings: “First, in a large, generally healthy cohort of men and women, higher midlife fitness was associated with lower risk of a depression diagnosis after 65 years of age.

“Second, not only was higher midlife fitness associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality, but importantly, it was also associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality when cardiovascular disease death was preceded by depression.

“This association was notable in later life years after the fitness assessment,” Dr Willis stated.

Researchers concluded: “These findings suggest the importance of midlife fitness in primary prevention of depression and subsequent cardiovascular disease mortality in older age and should encourage physicians to consider fitness and physical activity in promoting healthy aging.”

This study is significant for Australians considering cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death and depression affects about a million people in Australia every year.

However, fitness in midlife can present challenges, especially if those exercising haven’t been active for most of their younger lives, according to Physiotherapist Adam Monteith.

One way to address complications that can arise with midlife cardiovascular activity is the use of anti-gravity treadmills, said Mr Monteith.

“It’s important to lower the load on the person’s ankles, knees and hips to get them moving pain-free.”

The use of Pilates reformers and physiotherapy-led Pilates classes also bring significant strength gains in a low weight bearing environment to aid in the prevention of pain, explained Mr Monteith.

“These two tools, or forms of exercise, are essential for the middle-aged person attempting to return to exercise.”

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