Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 25, 2020

Increased physical activity can prevent depression

By JESSICA KASAMOTO | February 7, 2019



Research has shown that exercising can help manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In the past decade alone, anxiety and depression have become increasingly prevalent issues in American society. 

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 18 percent of American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder, and about seven percent of adults are faced with a major depressive disorder. 

While the statistics may be frightening, recent studies are more uplifting. Research has indicated that an increased amount of exercise can be used as a preventative measure against depression and anxiety. 

While mental health issues are a growing concern for everyone, such feelings are especially prominent amongst young people. 

According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, anxiety and depression are the top two pressing concerns for college students, with 41.6 percent of college students seeing anxiety as a large concern and 36.4 percent seeing depression as a concern. 

Depression in young adults and teenagers, however, is a relatively new diagnosis. Up until the 1980s, many scientists simply did not believe that young adults’ brains were developed enough to be capable of experiencing any form of major depressive disorder. In the past, doctors had mostly attributed mood swings in teens to normal aspects of growth and development. 

According to Karen Swartz, director of clinical and educational programs at the Mood Disorders Center, depression in young adults can sometimes be attributed to stressful or traumatic situations, but outside factors may also play no role at all in the eventual development of depression. 

“People who have depression — and especially psychiatrists with depression — are always caught up in the whys,” Swartz said in an interview with the Johns Hopkins Health Review. “But sometimes the story is as boring as, ‘It runs in your family, you’re vulnerable to it, and when the combination of life stress and hormones react, you get it.’” 

While anxiety may be more common than depression, oftentimes it can be more difficult to spot. According to a 2015 report from the Child Mind Institute, only 20 percent of young adults with diagnosable anxiety disorders actually receive the treatment they need.

“Kids can be perfectionists or overachievers,” therapist Arielle Goldman stated in an interview with the Johns Hopkins Health Review. “Depression is usually noticed more easily, but anxiety can fuel achievement and, thus, it’s this hidden affliction.”

The most common anxiety disorders amongst both teens and adults is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), characterized by disproportionate amounts of worry about one or more aspects of life such as money, work, school or family. Physical symptoms of GAD can be tiredness, nausea, headaches and muscle tension.

Other common anxiety disorders include social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

While poor mental health may be an increasingly growing issue in America, a study from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has shown, using genetic data, that increased amounts of exercise can help prevent depression. 

The study was conducted using Mendelian randomization, a technique which uses different variations in genes to study the effects of a non-genetic factor. While this type of study is different from most traditional research, it is extremely helpful in detecting causality amongst traits — in this case the amount of physical activity and depression levels — instead of just correlation. 

Karmel Choi of the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit in the MGH Center for Genomic Medicine explained the relationship between physical activity and mental health in an interview with ScienceDaily

“On average... doing more physical activity appears to protect against developing depression,” Choi said. “Any activity appears to be better than none; our rough calculations suggest that replacing sitting with 15 minutes of a heart-pumping activity like running, or with an hour of moderately vigorous activity, is enough to produce the average increase in accelerometer data that was linked to a lower depression risk.”

While this study focused on the positive effects exercise can have on depression, studies have also shown that exercise can help to ease anxiety as well. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise releases endorphins associated with positive feelings, such as endogenous cannabinoids. Exercise is a good distraction from negative emotions and can help break the cycle of increasingly negative thoughts and worries. It is also an effective way for individuals to gain confidence by setting and achieving realistic exercise goals. 

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