Exercise does help prevent depression, research shows
[Cosmos Magazine, 1/25/19] An international study of the genetics of 300,000 people has confirmed that physical activity can help prevent depression, and provided some solid evidence that it works the other way. A lack of exercise can cause depression.
Previous studies have found a link between lack of exercise and depression, but none has shown that a lack of exercise can actually cause depression. It was thought equally possible that being depressed simply led people to exercise less.
However, this new work by a team at Massachusetts General Hospital, US, shows a causal link between exercising and avoiding depression, and also shows that the opposite is not true – being depressed does not cause people to exercise less.
The findings are published in a report in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
“We know depression is a leading cause of disability around the world but we know much less about how to prevent this difficult condition,” says lead author Karmel Choi, from the MGH Centre for Genomic Medicine.
“We wanted to harness the advances of large-scale genomics studies to validate a promising target for depression.”
The researchers focussed on physical activity because “it is something people can change” and used a Mendelian randomisation design, which can treat genetic variation between people as a kind of natural experiment.
“Although Mendelian randomisation is not without its own limitations, it can be used to answer familiar questions using a very different approach from what has been done before,” Choi says.
“Put simply,” adds Adam Mourad Chekroud in a related editorial, “if exercise causally reduces the incidence of depression, then people who carry gene variants that increase exercise should proportionally be less likely to get depressed.”
The strengths of the design help to rule out confounding factors like weight, education and income. It can also clarify whether physical activity prevents risk of depression, and whether not exercising increases risk, Chekroud explains.
The researchers used genetic physical activity and depression data from the UK Biobank and a global Psychiatric Research Consortium. Physical activity was measured using participants’ self-reported activity levels and accelerometers – motion-detecting sensors worn to track activity levels……………
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