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Does exercise help seniors with depression?

Does exercise help seniors with depression? There are many physical health benefits to exercise for the elderly, but a new study shows there is a growing number of mental health benefits as well.

There are a number of important health benefits to exercising for elderly patients. Moderate exercise can improve muscle strength, which can help diminish the risks of falls and subsequent bone fractures. Exercise also improves blood flow, helping to keep vital organ systems healthy. Now, a new study is highlighting just how much seniors can benefit mentally from physical exercise as well.

More effective than medicine?
While it's been a well-known fact for years that exercise can help improve people's moods and offset symptoms of some common mental illnesses, research suggests that moderate exercising may actually help to alleviate depression in the elderly better than some antidepressant medications. 

According to a team from the Duke University Medical Center, 30 minutes of exercise three times a week may help treat depression in the elderly better than standard prescriptions. 

"One of the conclusions we can draw from this is that exercise may be just as effective as medication and may be a better alternative for certain patients," said James Blumenthal, lead author of the report and a psychologist at Duke. "Almost one-third of depressed patients in general do not respond to medications, and for others, the medications can cause unwanted side effects. Exercise should be considered a viable option."

Adding that they aren't sure yet why exercise has such mental health benefits for seniors, Blumenthal said it is a credible form of treatment. The exercises could be as simple as a brisk 30-minute walk. 

The study examined 156 elderly patients who were diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, which is characterized by depressed mood, loss of interest, changes in appetite, impaired cognition, sleep disruptions and feelings of guilt or worthlessness. Part of the group was treated with only exercise, while others were treated with antidepressant medications. The remainder of the group was treated using both.

After 16 weeks, the study found that there were only slight differences in the outcomes for each group - 60.4 percent of the exercise-only group stopped reporting depressive symptoms, as did 65.5 percent of the medication-only group, and 68.8 percent of the group who received both treatments. 

Blumenthal said that these results are good news for patients who experience adverse side effects from antidepressants, and that exercise can provide patients with a sense that they are taking a more active role in their own mental health.

What types of exercise are best for the elderly?
Seniors need to be especially careful of the kind of exercises they try to do. Anyone at any age can hurt him or herself by overexerting during exercise, but the risks are even greater as people age. Older adults need to focus on gentle, low-impact exercises that have low risks of injury.

Any person should first consult with his or her doctor before starting a new exercise regime to be cleared for physical activity. A good physician will be able to customize a workout plan that suits a patient's specific needs. 

It's important for seniors to start slow and build up to more intense workouts, especially if they have been mostly sedentary before adopting a workout routine. Take a short walk at a slow pace for 10 minutes. Then each week, gradually add a little more speed or a little more time until they feel comfortable trying more. Other good low-impact exercises include water aerobics or introductory yoga poses. 

As seniors build up their strength with light exercises, they can slowly progress to add a full workout schedule that includes cardio exercises and weight training for a complete, balanced routine.