People over 65 can substantially improve their mental health by adding regular physical exercise into their lifestyle, with the social aspects of participating in group exercise appearing to play a key role in reducing the impact of depressive symptoms in older people, a study has found.
The proportion of older adults aged 65 years and over in the Australian population is gradually rising, leading to an ageing population, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. World Health Organization data shows that clinical depression is the most commonly reported mental health problem in older adults aged over 65.
Federation University Australia researcher Dr Kyle Miller said while exercise was known to offer a range of physiological and mental health benefits, the older population is consistently the least physically active demographic.
Dr Miller, who completed the research for his PhD thesis, said the study included a comprehensive review of already available research, including clinical trials, and a survey of 600 over-65s.
“The overwhelming majority of studies already conducted have shown us that exercise, regardless of what type of exercise, is beneficial for mental health and in particular depression for people over 65. As long as people are doing exercise and are enjoying doing it, then there are clear benefits,” Dr Miller said.
“But we wanted to take another step and work out if there was a particular aspect of exercise – the social aspect – that was having an influence on mental health, and in particular depression.”
Symptoms of depression typically include a persistent sadness, irritable or anxious mood, low energy levels or fatigue, reduced concentration and attention, sleep or appetite problems, low self-esteem or self-confidence, feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable, and difficulty in carrying out usual work or social activities.
The survey looked at how exercise could influence participants’ moods and feelings of social connectedness, and these effects on long-term mental health. It also looked at the self-efficacy of those who participated in the survey – the participants' perception of their own ability to complete a workout and the impact this had on their mood and their ongoing mental health.
“We found that exercise does make people feel better about themselves and makes them feel capable of achieving their goals,” Dr Miller said.
“And it was clear that the social aspects of exercise were most important, whether it was just having a social connection with someone else or doing exercise in larger groups – the results tell us that doing this can be positive for mental health.”
Dr Miller said older adults should be encouraged to select their personal preference when engaging in exercise, whether it is walking, aerobics, tai chi, yoga, resistance training, or anything in between. He said the volume of exercise was not as important as over-65s simply engaging in physical activity with others.
“There’s never been a greater need for prevention strategies and treatment adjuncts to inform our ageing population and support primary care and allied health ecosystems,” Dr Miller said.
“We need to start promoting physical exercise for mental health – not just for physical health. We know that exercise improves cardiovascular fitness and strengthens muscles, but we should also encourage people to consider participating in group exercise because it is particularly beneficial for their mental well-being.”