Scientists have often suggested that there is a correlation between exercise and depression. Forcing yourself to exercise when depressed has yielded positive results, but scientists still cannot agree about the exact mechanism involved in the process. Recent research has proven that people who lead a more active lifestyle tend to be less depressed. But there is also the possibility that less depressed people just have a higher motivation to be active. Time also plays an essential role, as it seems that people who have more free time to stay active and socialize are also less prone to depression.
Many of these questions are yet to be answered, and fortunately, tools have now been developed that may help with some of those answers. To answer the question of how exercise helps with alleviating depression, researchers used a method called Mendelian randomization. This method is used to understand the causal relationships between behaviors which can be modified.
It is very difficult to determine whether it is the exercise that influences depression or is it the other way around. This is because both depression and exercise have a lot of varying factors. For example, people that have more money have easier access to therapy and medication. Then some people might be so depressed that they do not even want to move around or their depression has a physical pain attached to it. These associations do affect the results of research, but one thing they do not do is affect your genes. Genes are something handed to us at conception completely randomly. They are not influenced by our socioeconomic status or other outside factors.
This is why genetic variation is so significant, since previous research has already proved that some gene variants do exercise more. This means that if physical activity is decreasing depression, the people that tend to exercise more are less likely to let depression set in.
The issue is that those same genes might also influence other things. This is something that is a big part of every Mendelian randomization study. This means that if the exercise gene is connected to low energy, and low energy is connected to depression, then it is safe to assume that that is another way for the gene variation to affect depression. Fortunately, the authors of the most recent study on this particular issue took every precaution to avoid this. Even after they removed some genes and education levels as factors from the study, the result still held.
During the study, the subjects had their activity levels measured with accelerometers, and they had to write daily activity reports. This allowed them to determine how reliable self-reporting actually is. Sadly, it turned out it is not. The reduction of depressive symptoms was there only for the participants that exercised more. This only strengthens the belief that exercising has a positive effect on depression.
Further studies about this, while helpful, may only strengthen these findings. At this point, it is imperative scientists find actual ways in which they can force an increase in the amount of exercise people do on a daily basis. Monitoring mental health alongside the amount of exercise is also crucial.
The evidence that exercise helps with depression is clear. It also helps with a bevy of other ailments like cancer and obesity. Now, it is imperative that doctors start prescribing it as a way to treat depression. The biggest hurdle after that is how to force people to really exercise more and to overcome socioeconomic barriers to give people the time and means to do so regularly. Latest studies show that more than 80 percent of all Americans are not getting enough daily physical activity. As soon as that is improved, depression rates are going to go down as well.