Physical Activity Linked to Decreased Risk of Depression in Older Adults

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A study found when older adults follow a light-moderate or a vigorous physical activity model it is associated with a lower incidence rate ratio of depression.

Physical activity could help prevent depression in older adults, according to new research.1

Using harmonized data of aging cohorts by the EU Ageing Trajectories of Health: Longitudinal Opportunities and Synergies consortium with over 20 countries, investigators of a new study, led by Rodrigo A. Lima, PhD, of the research, innovation, and teaching unit at Parc Sanitari Sant Joan de Déu in Sant Boi de Llobregat, Spain, sought to evaluate the extent to which physical activity is associated with depression in older adults.

“We observed that physical activity of any intensity and weekly frequency was strongly associated with lower risk of depression in older adults,” investigators wrote. “In particular, participating in light-to-moderate or vigorous physical activity at least once a week was already a strong protector against depression in older adults.”

Depression affects approximately 300 million people worldwide. Due to this, studies have strived to pinpoint factors that reduce the risk of depression in an adult population. In previous studies, data found a lower risk of incident depression for adults and older adults who performed physical activity. Furthermore, the risk of incident depression has been estimated to be 16 – 31% lower for adults, and with moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, 21% lower. According to the National Health Service (NHS), older adults should get their exercise in daily, completing ≥ 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity if already active.2

In the longitudinal study, investigators collected data from 3 studies: Health and Retirement Study, Survey of Health Ageing and Retirement in Europe, and Korean Longitudinal Study.1 The 3 studies included data on physical activity and depression in ≥ 2 waves.

The Health and Retirement study had assessed participant’s depression status by the 8-item Depression Scale of the Center for Epidemiological Studies, and the Study of Health Ageing and retiring in Europe used the scale but with 10 items. In contrast, the Korean Longitudinal study used the European Union Initiative scale. If participants scored ≥ 4 in the Health and Retirement study and the Study of Health Ageing and retiring in Europe and a ≥ 10 on the Korean Longitudinal study, the investigators classified them with depression.

In the study physical activity was measured by weekly frequency of either light-to-moderate physical activity or vigorous physical activity. The new study also used the ATHLOS healthy aging scale measures intrinsic capacity and functional ability—Lima and colleagues divided the score into quartiles to include the 3 studies. Participants aged 50 – 102 years old either followed light-to-moderate physical activity models (n = 56,818; 52.7% female) or vigorous physical activity models (n = 62,656; 52.7% female).

Upon analysis, Light-to-moderate or vigorous physical activity was linked to a lower incidence rate ratio of depression (light-to-moderate model: once/week: 0.632; 95%; CI, 0.602 – 0.663; twice or more/week: 0.488; 95%; CI, 0.468 –0.510; vigorous model: once/week: 0.652; 95% CI, 0.623 – 0.683; twice or more/week: 0.591; 95% CI, 0.566 – 0.616).After adjusting for the healthy ageing scale, physical activity remained linked to depression (light-to-moderate model: once/week: 0.787; 95%; CI, 0.752 – 0.824; twice or more/week: 0.711; 95% CI 0.682 – 0.742; vigorous model: once/week: 0.828; 95% CI, 0.792 – 0.866; twice or more/week: 0.820; 95%; CI, 0.786 – 0.856).

“Importantly, our findings demonstrate that physical activity of any intensity or weekly frequency is a strong determinant of depression in older persons despite their healthy ageing scale, establishing the relevance of physical activity despite the person’s intrinsic capacity and functional ability,” investigators concluded.1


  1. Lima, R.A., Condominas, E., Sanchez-Niubo, A. et al. Physical Activity Participation Decreases the Risk of Depression in Older Adults: The ATHLOS Population-Based Cohort Study. Sports Med - Open 10, 1 (2024).
  2. Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults. NHS. Accessed January 11, 2023.