Exercise lifts depression and eases anxiety for older adults

World Mental Health Day on October 10 is an opportune time to look at the psychological benefits of exercise, one of the most promising, evidence-based prescriptions for improving the mental health of older adults.

Mood and anxiety disorders are the two most common types of mental health conditions that affect Canadian adults of all ages, including seniors, says the Public Health Agency of Canada. The physical health benefits of exercise have long been well-known. But a growing number of research studies suggest regular physical activity also can have positive effects in easing anxiety and boosting mood in older adults who are depressed. Unlike prescription medications for mental health conditions, exercise is low-cost and doesn’t have potentially uncomfortable or problematic side effects.

Walking wards off depression

A University of Toronto study found that even moderate exercise – walking or gardening for 20 to 30 minutes a day – helps to maintain good mental health and prevent the onset of depression later in life.

Regular physical activity also helps treat depression. A review of 18 studies investigating the benefits of physical activity in treating older adults experiencing or at risk for mood disorders found exercise helped to reduce depression symptoms, according to McMaster University. While all types of exercise are beneficial, programs such as tai chi and qi gong were found to be most effective, due to the emphasis on both the body and mind through slow, controlled movements, meditation, breathing and relaxation techniques, says McMaster.

Calming anxiety with exercise

Nearly 50 studies examining the effects of programmed exercise on anxiety have found that regular leisure-time exercise can reliably lower anxiety while also promoting feelings of well-being, according to Boston University. In these programs, people typically exercised for 30 to 40 minutes three times per week.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health showed that older adults who participated in a flexibility, toning and balance physical activity program for six months experienced less depression and anxiety than when they started.

Regular physical activity can be a great way to ease symptoms of depression or anxiety, but if the symptoms still interfere with your quality of life, ask your doctor or a mental health professional about the potential benefits of talk therapy or medications, says Mayo Clinic.

Chartwell Retirement Residences offers a wide range of enjoyable physical activity programs such as walking clubs, tai chi, yoga and gardening that can improve your physical health, boost your mood and ease your mind.