As people age their ability to lead functional and happy lives can diminish as they lose strength, fitness, and mobility. A reduced quality of life and a dependance on others for day to day care can lead to depression. A recent study in Australia has found that strength training can cut depression by 50 per cent in older adults battling depression. This study also found that high intensity resistance training is superior to low intensity resistance training or usual care by a general practitioner.
The study was conducted as a randomised trial using high intensity, progressive resistance training (PRT) in older people with depression. 'What this means is weight lifting exercise, using weights that are relatively heavy for the person, so they’re set approximately 80 per cent of what the person can lift when they're trying as hard as they can,' says Maria Fiatarone Singh, Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Sydney.
Participants of the eight week study, which was meant to mimic the length of most trials of antidepressant medications which generally show significant effects by about six to eight weeks, were all battling depression with the average age of participants being 70 years old. They were put through 45-minute sessions of whole body training regimens, 3 days a week. Participants' strength were measured every week and the weights were adjusted accordingly.
Participants were separated into three different groups. The first group was medically treated for depression. The second group participated in weight training using heavy weights and the third group conducted the same exercises but using lightweights which were set at 20 per cent of their strength.
'What we saw was that the low intensity exercise for older people, which was our placebo exercise condition, worked a little bit just like the GP care did; the patients got about 30 per cent or 40 per cent improvement in their depression scores, which is about what you see when you either do nothing, or use a placebo in depression. The high intensity group of elderly got significantly better, there was between 50 per cent to 70 per cent improvement in depression, which is pretty much exactly equivalent to a good antidepressant drug effect,' says Singh of the results
The study resulted in no injuries from the elderly participants, which shows how a properly designed strength program is very safe for elderly people. The study recorded three-quarters of the elderly had no diagnosis of clinical depression when assessed at the end of the study.
It appears that the greatest problem is motivating these clinically depressed adults to exercise. However, Singh explains that all participants were clinically depressed, 'but they were probably at the stage where they were looking for help of some sort. And for many of the older participants we had I think the fact that we were using exercise rather than a drug was probably one of the reasons that they chose to do the trials. I think it is possible to get people, both young and older, who are very depressed and yet have some hope of some cure.'
Moreover, Singh believes there is an overall cost benefit of this method due to the widespread benefits of exercise. 'One of the downsides of antidepressant medication is that many people stop them because of the side effects and one of the things that they do which is quite hazardous for older people, is that they increase the risk of falling and hop fracture. Exercise has the opposite effect. Exercise reduces your risk of falling (see our article on Osteoporosis Prevention) and that's even another reason that it may be if the two treatments work equivalently well for depression, which they do seem to do, then you have a reason to sort of choose one or the other, based on the side effect profile.'
But researchers state the bottom line is that if you're going to take up this kind of exercise, you've got to work to increasing your goals constantly. 'You have to be working at a good intensity and be progressing and I think that's the key. Many people think that exercise works because it has a socialising effect or even you can just sort of pat somebody on the back and do almost anything and they'll feel better. And it seems to be absolutely not true, and in fact people who are mildly depressed, they benefit from almost anything you do, but if you really have true serious depression, you need a very robust treatment, and that can be a drug, plus counseling, or it can be a good dose of either kind of exercise,' says Singh.
Source: ABC Online. Also see the Osteoporosis Australia for more information on Osteoporosis and strength training.
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