Being fit doesn’t just help your body — it also helps your mind, a new study reports.
People in better physical condition appear to have less need for drugs to treat mood disorders, Norwegian researchers have found.
“We find that people who are in better shape fill fewer prescriptions for anxiety and depression medications,” said senior author Linda Ernstsen, an associate professor of public health and nursing at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
For the study, researchers analyzed data from the Trøndelag Health Study, which has gathered health data since 1984 for more than 250,000 residents of that Norwegian county.
The research group compared that data with information from the Norwegian Prescribed Drug Registry, an overview of medications dispensed in Norway.
In a previous study, Ernstsen and her colleagues found that people who were in good physical shape had a lower prevalence of depressive symptoms during a follow-up 10 years later. The study didn’t come to any conclusions regarding anxiety, however.
This new study allowed researchers to look at both depression and anxiety medication use.
Being in good physical shape helps all age groups and both genders, researchers found, but they added that some types of people get greater benefits from fitness than others.
“We find that men experience a greater effect from exercise than women. The correlations are also less clear for the elderly,” Ernstsen said in a university news release.
However, both women and the elderly did experience a mental benefit from exercise.
To try to draw a tighter line between fitness and mental health, researchers excluded anyone who had filled prescriptions for anxiety or depression conditions before participating in follow-up, as well as for three months afterwards.
“We also adjusted for symptoms of anxiety and depression in statistical analyses. To the extent that the figures can be believed, we also feel fairly confident that we started with a relatively anxiety- and depression-free cohort,” Ernstsen said.
There is one catch to the study — the researchers could only see what medications were prescribed, but they couldn’t know whether the people actually took their meds.
“Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that people who are prescribed medication have more symptoms than those who do not see a doctor,” said first author Audun Havnen, an associate professor of psychology at the university.
“The results indicate that you can achieve a protective effect by improving your physical shape from poor to moderate, so any activity is beneficial,” Havnen said in the release.
Researchers said people should be physically active in a way that leaves them breathless and sweaty if they want to improve or maintain their physical condition.
Norwegian health authorities recommend that adults be physically active for at least 150 to 300 minutes at moderate intensity each week.
But one option for people who are short on time is to aim for 75 minutes of high-intensity training each week or a combination of moderate and high-intensity training.
“Research reinforces the finding that each minute of physical activity counts,” Ernstsen said.
The new study appears in the Oct. 15 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about physical activity guidelines.
SOURCE: Norwegian University of Science and Technology, news release, Aug. 31, 2023
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