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We all know that exercise is good for our hearts. Now a recent study in JAMA Psychiatry shows it may also benefit our long-term mental health. Researchers report that physical fitness in midlife lowered the risk of later-life depression and death from cardiovascular disease.

Participants included 17,989 men and women, with an average age of 50 years and no prior history of depression or cardiovascular disease; their midlife fitness levels were estimated based on treadmill exercise testing. Researchers examined data collected from 1971 to 2009 as part of the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study. During that time, 2,701 participants received depression diagnoses and 841 died due to cardiovascular disease.

As participants’ midlife fitness levels increased, rates of depression and cardiovascular disease decreased. Those in the high-fitness group were 16 percent less likely than those in the low-fitness group to be diagnosed with depression.

If fit study participants were diagnosed, however, they had a 56 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease than their less fit counterparts.  

Study authors note that other recent research backs up their findings. They quote intervention studies showing that exercise has an antidepressant effect in the short term for people with mild to moderate depression. For example, a 2017 cohort study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, followed 33,908 healthy adults for 11 years and found that regular leisure-time exercise of any intensity ­protected against future depression. 

Benjamin Willis, MD, MPH, director of epidemiology at The Cooper Institute in Dallas and lead study author, told the New York Times this research demonstrates the long-term connection between physical fitness, depression, and death from cardiovascular disease. “And it’s something you can approach with modifiable behavior,” he said. “It’s never too late to get off the couch and start having some physical activity.”

7 million: Estimated number of the 39 million Americans over age 65 — between 15 and 20 percent — who suffer from depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

16%: Percentage reduction in risk of depression among study participants in the high-­fitness group compared with those in the low-fitness group.

1 hour: Estimated amount of weekly exercise required to prevent 12 percent of future depressive episodes, according to a 2017 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.  

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