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A newly published study suggests that exercising an hour or more per week could lower the incidence of depression. The study followed 33,000 adults in Norway  for 11 years, and found that an hour or more of weekly exercise was associated with 12% fewer cases of developing depression. But note that it didn't prevent anxiety. Interestingly, the researchers found that "regular leisure-time exercise of any intensity" had these positive effects - it doesn't have to be aerobic or incredibly strenuous exercise. Exercise is associated with a number of biological changes that could have an impact on mental health. From Science Daily:

One hour of exercise a week can prevent depression

A landmark study led by the Black Dog Institute has revealed that regular exercise of any intensity can prevent future depression -- and just one hour can help. Published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the results show even small amounts of exercise can protect against depression, with mental health benefits seen regardless of age or gender.

In the largest and most extensive study of its kind, the analysis involved 33,908 Norwegian adults who had their levels of exercise and symptoms of depression and anxiety monitored over 11 years. The international research team found that 12 percent of cases of depression could have been prevented if participants undertook just one hour of physical activity each week.

A healthy cohort of participants was asked at baseline to report the frequency of exercise they participated in and at what intensity: without becoming breathless or sweating, becoming breathless and sweating, or exhausting themselves. At follow-up stage, they completed a self-report questionnaire (the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale) to indicate any emerging anxiety or depression.

Results showed that people who reported doing no exercise at all at baseline had a 44% increased chance of developing depression compared to those who were exercising one to two hours a week. However, these benefits did not carry through to protecting against anxiety, with no association identified between level and intensity of exercise and the chances of developing the disorder. [Original article.]

The possibilities are exciting. See my earlier posts on psychobiotics for more information. From Medical Xpress:

How gut bacteria ensures a healthy brain – and could play a role in treating depression

But medicine in the 21st century is rethinking its relationship with bacteria and concluding that, far from being uniformly bad for us, many of these organisms are actually essential for our health. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the human gut, where the microbiome  – the collection of bacteria living in the gastrointestinal tract - plays a complex and critical role in the health of its host.

The microbiome interacts with and influences organ systems throughout the body, including, as research is revealing, the brain. This discovery has led to a surge of interest in potential gut-based treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders and a new class of studies investigating how the gut and its microbiome affect both healthy and diseased brains.

The lives of the bacteria in our gut are intimately entwined with our immune, endocrine and nervous systems. The relationship goes both ways: the microbiome influences the function of these systems, which in turn alter the activity and composition of the bacterial community. We are starting to unravel this complexity and gain insight into how gut bacteria interface with the rest of the body and, in particular, how they affect the brain.

The microbiome-immune system link is established early on. Over the first year of life, bacteria populate the gut, which is largely sterile at birth, and the developing immune system learns which bacteria to consider normal residents of the body and which to attack as invaders. This early learning sets the stage for later immune responses to fluctuations in the microbiome's composition.

When a normally scarce strain becomes too abundant or a pathogenic species joins the community of gut bacteria, the resulting response by the immune system can have wide-reaching effects. Depression has been linked with elevated levels of such molecules in some individuals, suggesting that treatments that alter the composition of the microbiome could alleviate symptoms of this disorder.

Such an intervention could potentially be achieved using either prebiotics – substances that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria – or probiotics – live cultures of these bacteria. It is even possible that the microbiome could be manipulated by dietary changes.

In one experiment, researchers transplanted the human microbiome into germ-free mice (animals that have no gut bacteria) in order to study it in a controlled setting. They found that, simply by changing the carbohydrate and fat content of the mice's food, they could alter basic cellular functions and gene expression in the microbiome.

Depression is not the only psychiatric disorder in which the microbiome may play a role.Research in rodents, as well as a few preliminary studies in humans, indicate that the state of our resident microbes is tied to our anxiety levels.

This research also reveals the complexity of the relationship between the microbiome and psychological state. ...Researchers have shown that the presence or absence of microbes in young mice affects the sensitivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – a key pathway in the body's stress response system. The activity of the microbiome during development thus sways how we respond to future stressors and how much anxiety they cause us.

How do the bacteria in our gut wield such influence over our brains and bodies? The mechanisms of microbiome-host interactions appear to be as numerous and varied as the interactions themselves.