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Physical Activity and Depression In The Older Population

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Physical Activity and Depression In The Older Population

Approximately 50% of Americans will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime, and one out of ten adults will struggle with depression. Depression can be a significant cause of disability for older adults. With this increasing prevalence of mental issues, many people turn to medications. Although medications can be helpful for depression, it's not the only solution! 

Evidence points to physical activity as a safe and healthy alternative that is also effective for treating this mental health condition. This is important for the aging population because the majority of this group has more than one chronic condition, and people with multiple chronic conditions are more likely to develop depression. Daily exercise can provide this group with a higher quality of life, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and improve mental health. Integrating this valuable therapy is vital to help improve these individuals' mental and overall health outcomes.


Understanding Depression in Older Adults

Depression is a true medical condition impacting the lives of aging individuals and is a leading cause of disability in this population. Although depression is more prevalent in older individuals with multiple health disorders such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, what's encouraging is that depression only affects up to 5% of this population and increases to 13.5% when home care is needed. 

However, it's important to note that due to the multiple conditions and clinical complexities of this group, depression can often go undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. If left untreated, depression can adversely impact the overall well-being of older adults. Depression can disrupt the daily lives of this population. They may experience feelings of hopelessness, guilt, irritability, motivation issues, loss of interest in activities, inability to concentrate, decreased energy, sleep disruptions, aggravated pain symptoms, changes in appetite, or thoughts of suicide, making it essential to diagnose and monitor depression for older adults adequately.

The Benefits of Physical Activity

Engaging in exercise offers both physical and vital psychological advantages. Moderate physical activity uplifts mood, alleviates stress, strengthens coping skills, boosts self-confidence, raises energy levels, and alleviates symptoms linked to depression. Physical activity can mitigate age-related factors contributing to depression as prevention and protection against conditions such as CVD and diabetes and, at the same time, improve sleep. 

Exercise can release endorphins or feel-good chemicals and neurotrophic factors that create new connections in the brain to make you feel better and can relieve symptoms of depression. What's good for the body is good for the mind. Exercise is shown to increase oxygenation, blood flow, and nutrients to essential organs, including the brain, for overall better function and health.

Types of Physical Activity for Older Adults

Staying active is one of the most important things we can do for overall health and mentality, regardless of age. As people get older, regular physical activity can prevent many age-related health issues, including mental health. It's important to note that even some physical activity is better than none, even if chronic conditions may decrease capabilities. Older adults may need a combination of low-impact exercises, strength training, and balance exercises. 

The CDC recommends low-impact, moderate-intensity physical activity for at least 150 minutes per week with two days of strength training and activities that improve balance. Low-impact exercises suitable for seniors include brisk walking, hiking, jogging, or running. Strength training can include resistance bands, bodyweight movements, and lifting weights to improve musculoskeletal health and mood. 

Resistance exercise is well-documented to improve mood and mental health conditions such as depression. Additionally, mind-body exercises such as yoga and tai-chi can be helpful for posture and improving balance, as well as improving mood through stress relief.

Functional Medicine Labs to Test For Root Cause of Depression in Older Adults

Practitioners commonly order the following functional medicine labs to assess for depression in their older adult patients:

Neurotransmitter Panel

Neurotransmitters are crucial for the mental and overall well-being of older adults. These signaling chemicals can affect emotions, pain sensitivity, and energy levels, impacting mood. Imbalances in neurotransmitters can contribute to conditions such as mood disorders, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Assessing neurotransmitter levels by completing the neurotransmitter panel can offer insight and aid treatment choices to address these health concerns in older individuals.

Micronutrient Deficiency Assessment

Being deficient in certain nutrients such as zinc, B vitamins, selenium, Vitamin D, and omega-3s have been associated with depression. These nutrients are essential in neurotransmitter production and neurological health. Interestingly, 30% of Americans have at least one micronutrient deficiency, which makes testing for them a critical consideration in mental and overall health as part of a comprehensive care approach.

Thyroid Panel

Thyroid hormone imbalances, such as hypothyroidism, have been linked with depression. Hypothyroidism can impact neurotransmitter processing and signaling. This thyroid panel takes a complete look into thyroid hormones and can be beneficial to assess older adults with depression and a history of thyroid issues.

Comprehensive Stool Testing

There is a bidirectional relationship between our gut and our brain. Disruptions in this gut-brain axis can cause neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine imbalances, causing mental health issues such as depression. A comprehensive stool panel can provide insights into the gut's overall health that may be associated with disrupting the gut-brain axis.

Incorporating Physical Activity Into Daily Life

Depression can create a lack of motivation, so even getting up and moving just a little bit can help. Just starting can help break the cycle, and the length of time and intensity can increase as people progress. The start can be the hardest part, but once they start, they can build a routine that includes regular exercise. 

Maintaining this routine is the next barrier to incorporating exercise into daily life. This barrier can be overcome by inviting a family member or friend or joining a group to help stay motivated. The social aspect is also important in maintaining a mentally healthy outlook. 

A common misconception for older adults is that they can't exercise because of their health conditions, which may cause physical limitations. For these individuals, it's best to start slowly and ease their way into a daily routine. 

As previously mentioned, it's important just to get started, as physical activity can improve chronic conditions. Other ways to maintain this routine are to choose fun activities, mix up the exercises for variety, and create a plan. If needed, physical therapists or trainers can also be beneficial to ensure that physical activity is a regular part of daily life.



Regardless of health condition or physical capability, it's essential just to start moving. Exercise is foundational for not only physical health but mental health as well. It can improve brain function to enhance mood and treat depression in older adults. The exercise recommendations are a combination of low-impact, moderate-intensity, strength training, and balancing exercises for this population. However, starting slowly and incorporating strategies such as joining a community is important to stay motivated. These approaches can help improve older adults' mental, physical, and overall well-being.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
Learn More

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