Your Weekly Checkup: Can Exercise Reduce Depression and Dementia?

It’s well known that exercise is good for your physical health, but could it help your mental health as well?

A grandfather walks with his adult grandson down a street.

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“Your Weekly Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

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In January I wrote about the benefits of exercise, stating in part that, “Exercising enables you to take control of your own health and well-being, reduce stress, maintain mental acuity and productivity, and decrease the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer.”

A recent study of over 5000 middle-aged men with 46 years of follow-up found that those with the highest cardiorespiratory fitness levels lived five years longer than peers in the bottom five percent of fitness.

Exercise also reduces the likelihood of depression, helps maintain mental health during aging, and may be as good as existing drugs to manage depression, dementia and anxiety. Such benefits may be related to a low number of cardiovascular risk factors that are associated with better anatomic brain health.

These results underscore the potential benefits of exercise for your head as well as your heart and are consistent with the notion that what goes on in your heart can affect your head and vice versa.

For example, better cardiovascular health may be associated with a reduced risk of dementia. In a French population study of 6626 individuals, an increased number of optimal cardiovascular health metrics including blood pressure control, exercise, diet and weight, nonsmoking, blood glucose, and cholesterol, were significantly associated with lower risk of developing dementia. Worsening cardiovascular health from abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high glucose is linked to an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Not all studies support the beneficial impact of exercise on dementia. One study of almost 500 people with mild to moderate dementia found that a moderate to high intensity aerobic and strength exercise training program did not slow cognitive impairment but did improve physical fitness. However, the changes in the extent of dementia were small, and there is more evidence, particularly from epidemiologic studies, that support an exercise benefit in mild cognitive impairment and in people at increased risk for dementia.

How might exercise be good for the brain? In addition to exercise-induced release of hormones such as endorphins that improve mood, exercise may release other chemicals that support neuron signaling, growth, and connections. Importantly, exercise appears to reduce the deterioration of brain size with aging and improve memory. These responses are especially critical in a part of the brain called the hippocampus that involves memory, emotions, and learning.

What Types of Exercise Are Most Beneficial?

In a study of 1.2 million individuals older than 18, all types of exercise were associated with fewer days of poor mental health compared with not exercising. The largest associations were seen for popular team sports, cycling, and aerobic and gym activities as well as durations of 45 minutes and frequencies of three to five times per week. Even dog owners walking their dogs live longer healthier lives with reduced cardiovascular problems.

Pick any activity you like, but just get out and do it!

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