Recent research published in Mental Health and Physical Activity investigated the relationship between significant life stressors, resulting psychiatric illness, and exercise. The findings indicate that those who consistently exercised were more likely to be resilient in the face of life stressors.
Those experiencing improved mental health after a life stressor were moderate exercisers, and those with chronic illness after a stressor had the lowest levels of exercise. The study affirms the positive effects of physical activity on mental health and highlights the importance of promoting regular exercise for overall mental well-being.
As part of the human experience, individuals go through stressful events like medical issues or the loss of a loved one, which can lead to mental health problems like depression and suicidal thoughts. Regular exercise has been shown to boost mental health, reducing the chances of developing anxiety or depression and improving the quality of life for older adults and those with depression.
The main objective of the new study was to determine if exercise done before a stressful event could help prevent higher levels of depression symptoms. The hypothesis was that if a person exercises regularly before a stressful event, they will be better equipped to handle it and may not experience as many negative effects, especially if they are already considered to be resilient.
“Given the association between consistent exercise and depression prevention, it is important to examine this association prospectively and longitudinally to identify strategies to prevent long-term negative impact, especially following major life stressors,” wrote lead author Kristin L. Szuhany and her colleagues in the study.
The researchers analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a longitudinal study of older adults in the United States, who were born between 1931 and 1947. The research team examined data from 2004 to 2016, using data from every other year. The participants provided written consent, and the analysis was conducted only on individuals who had experienced stressors such as bereavement, myocardial infarction, divorce, job loss, or disability. The sample size included 1,405 participants with exercise data for all time points and varying degrees of depressive symptoms.
Szuhany and her colleagues examined the data for evidence of physical activity’s effect on depression after stressful life events. The intent was to determine whether protective factors can reduce the severity of psychiatric illness after stressful events. The findings revealed that people who engaged in regular exercise had a better chance of resiliency and experienced lower levels of depression throughout the study.
Those identified as more resilient completed more exercise at higher levels, both before and after the stressful event, which could have helped prevent the development of depression symptoms. On the other hand, those who experienced chronic or emerging depression tended to have lower levels of exercise at both time points.
Among individuals with high levels of depression initially, regular exercise that remained stable over time was associated with a continual decrease in symptoms after the stressor. This finding suggests that exercise before and after a stressful event may help prevent depressive symptoms in the short and long term.
Although it is well known that exercise can prevent depression, this study sheds light on how exercise can influence different trajectories of depression following stressful life events. While there is some evidence that exercise can reduce depression after bereavement or divorce, few studies have examined its role in protecting against stressors like job loss or myocardial infarction.
The research team identified some limitations of the study, including the absence of details regarding how often and for how long participants exercised, the inability to determine the exact time of the stressor concerning the assessments, and the potential impact of other factors that may have affected the outcomes.
The research highlights the significance of encouraging people to engage in physical activity, particularly before facing stressful situations, and the possible benefits of continuing exercise after experiencing stressors. Exercising regularly, including before encountering stressful life events, may help decrease the chances of developing depression. Continuing to exercise after a stressful event may further enhance mood in the short term.
“Our findings underscore the importance of promoting exercise engagement, especially prior to life stressors, but also the potential importance of exercise maintenance following stressors, which may contribute to decreasing depression over time,” Szuhany and her colleagues said. “Given that only approximately 23% of adults meet weekly exercise recommendations for cardiovascular health and the lack of mental health guidelines, identifying and disseminating exercise engagement strategies is of utmost importance.”
The study, “Physical activity may buffer against depression and promote resilience after major life stressors“, was authored by Kristin L. Szuhany, Matteo Malgaroli and George A. Bonanno.