If exercise could be put into a pill, would you take it? An article published by ABC claimed that exercising three times a week could be more beneficial than medication in treating depressive symptoms in elderly people (Livni, 2018). Depression is a common and consequential medical illness that is categorized by negative affect toward a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Symptoms of depression consist of feeling sad, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, trouble sleeping, increased fatigue and, in some cases, thoughts of death or suicide.
Depression is a common disorder related to aging (Vasques, Moraes, Silveira, Deslandes, & Laks, 2011). The elderly is subject to depression through feelings of nearing the end of their life, maybe they have lost many loved ones, or feel lower levels of self-esteem due to not being actively involved in the work force (Livni, 2018). While the most prevalent treatment for depression amongst the elderly is antidepressants, there is a growing body of research analyzing the benefits of physical exercise as a possible treatment for depression amongst the elderly.
The most effective treatment for depression is antidepressant medication, but less than a quarter of the population have access to those (McNeil, LeBlanc, & Joyner, 1991). Physical activity has been shown to be an effective alternative to reduce depressive symptoms. Physical activity also produces a wide variety of positive effects, including social contact, improved self-esteem, and quality of life as a whole (McNeil, LeBlanc, & Joyner, 1991). Previous studies have reflected mixed results on the efficacy of exercise on depressive symptoms, which can be attributed to mixed methods and randomization procedures.
One meta-analysis investigated the effect of physical activity on reducing depressive symptoms in patients. But the results indicated that physical exercise reduced depressive symptoms and that physical activity provides moderate benefits as a treatment for depression (Silveira et al., 2013). The efficacy of physical activity as a treatment for depressive symptoms was influenced by age, but the analysis found that elderly patients suffering from depressive symptoms responded better to physical activity than the controls presented across studies (Silveira et al., 2013). Silveira et al. (2013) also found that physical activity increased cortical activity amongst elderly participants and significantly reduced depressive symptoms through six months of training.
Another important factor to consider regarding depressive symptoms and functionality is the prevalence of a social network, or a support system. One would assume that having a strong social network would alleviate, or at least aid, the negative effects of depressive symptoms as feelings of loneliness is a primary symptom of people experiencing depression.
The ABC article claimed that it was unsure whether exercise produced beneficial effects, or if it was due to a social network involved in research (Livni, 2018). McNeil et al. (1991) investigated the influence of physical activity and social contact through two types of depressive symptomology, which included the psychological symptoms (e.g., feelings of hopelessness, depressed mood, and loss of interest in normal activities) and somatic symptoms such as a reduced or poor appetite, bothered sleep, and fatigue. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: an experimenter accompanied exercise, social contact control, or a wait list condition.
The experimenter accompanied condition had participants walk with an experimenter for twenty minutes. The social contact condition consisted of two weekly home visits by an undergraduate student, while participants in the wait list condition were told their participation would be delayed by six weeks, which created a measure of exclusion. The experimenter accompanied condition is the only condition that resulted in physical improvement, but both the experimenter accompanied, and social contact conditions were equally effective in reducing depression (McNeil et al., 1991). Their results indicated that accompanied exercise reduces a broad range of depressive symptoms, compared to social contact by itself. Their results also indicate that the positive effect of exercise is not due solely to physical activity but enhanced by social contact.
Cognition is a role that is impaired during depression, which has become a growing concern for researchers (Vasques et al., 2011). Cognitive impairment is associated with depression and the impairment of daily activities. While physical activity has proven beneficial as a treatment or therapy for depression, activities that involve divided attention such as walking, or exercising can be risky for impaired cognition, a theory known as the dual task intervention (Vasques et al., 2011). The issue with divided attention, particularly amongst elderly individuals, is that their execution is prioritized between cognition and motor control.
Previous studies have shown mixed results for the influence of exercise on cognitive functioning. Vasques et al. (2011) examined the effect of physical activity on cognitive performance among depressed elderly individuals, expecting cognitive functions to improve after exercise. They examined 10 elderly depressed participants through a couple of cognitive and physical assessments over the p of half an hour, and again one month later. Their results reflected improvement in attention and inhibitory control but not working memory. The results indicated that exercise activated cognitive functioning in different parts of the brain, which account for mood improvement in depressed individuals (Vasques et al., 2011).
In all, the ABC article was supported through research. Physical activity has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression, and act as a potential alternate treatment for individuals suffering from depression. Research has indicated that physical exercise results in improvement of cognitive functioning. Research has also indicated that the positive effect of exercise is not due solely to physical activity but enhanced by social contact.
While research has supported the claims made in the ABC article, there are some important limitations to note. Silveira et al., (2013) found that most studies performed similar procedures of 30 minutes to an hour of exercise at a time, in addition to only studying patients diagnosed with mild to moderate depressive symptoms. A reason for this, as noted in the ABC article, is that exercise is difficult for many people, involving motivation that many people with depression already lack.
Many of the research conducted had focused on mild to moderately depressed individuals, or people with limited prevalence of the trait. It could be beneficial to see how these studies replicate with individuals that are clinically diagnosed with major depressive disorder. It was also noted that future research should examine different types of exercise such as aquatic training, and others. Physical exercise has been shown through research to influence depression among the elderly. The physical activity of exercise, along with social connection, lead to increased measures of mood and may have the ability to act as an alternate treatment for depression among the elderly.
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