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Want to Lower Your Risk of Depression and Dying from Heart Disease? Do This

Older man looking at his smart phone surrounded by greenery

Exercise helps us feel better physically as well as emotionally. That's pretty much a given.  But new Dallas-based research takes that connection even deeper. People who have higher fitness levels in middle age will have lower incidences of depression and cardiovascular-related death years later, according to a study released Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry. "People who develop depression are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease," says Dr. Benjamin Willis, director of epidemiology at The Cooper Institute and lead author of the study. "Interestingly, those who have had a CVD event such as a heart attack are at higher risk for depression. With an interest in prevention, we were looking to see if aerobic fitness would be able to lower the risk for both across the lifespan even many years later."The non-clinical study, a collaboration between the institute and UT Southwestern Medical Center, took data from almost 18,000 participants enrolled in the decades-long Cooper Center Longitudinal Study. Researchers studied correlations between fitness, depression and deaths from cardiovascular disease as participants aged. "Exercise lowers the risk of CVD and that’s been associated with depression," Willis says. "Fitness turns out to be one of those modifiable risk factors that can favorably affect risk." How favorably? Results showed people with high levels of fitness around age 50 were found to have the following in later years: 16 percent lower risk of depression. 56 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease death after a diagnosis of depression. 61 percent lower risk of cardiovascular death without a depression diagnosis. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, has not read the study but has long believed in the connection between physical and emotional health. "Based on our research," she writes in an email, "we have shown it is important to be physically fit AND cognitively fit for psychological well being. Thus, if you do have a cardiovascular event, you are better protected against the potential detrimental effects on the brain, such as depression, memory and concentration deficits." One reason exercise may help, says Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, senior author of the study and director of the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care at UT Southwestern, is that it reduces inflammation, which may be linked to depression.  And while the people in the study were middle-aged and beyond, Trivedi believes, based on his previously published research, that anyone can benefit from the findings. "The earlier you maintain fitness," he says, "the better chance of preventing depression, which in the long run will help lower the risk of heart disease." For people who are depressed and feel hopeless, though, getting motivated to exercise can be difficult. He offers these suggestions for a greater chance at success: Set aside a consistent time to exercise, but don't get discouraged if you go through long times of inactivity. Just pick up when you can. Keep track of  your progress.Vary the workouts to keep it interesting.Exercise with a friend.Be held accountable. Ask a friend to make sure you're sticking with your plan. Workouts can take various forms, Willis says, and don't have to be complicated or expensive. Not time-consuming either: Just 30 minutes a day most days, for a total of 150 minutes a week, he says. "These new insights illustrate the importance of fitness to maintain both physical and psychological health as we age," Willis says. "Now we know that the long-term benefits and the connection between mind-body wellness are more significant than we thought. Willis, who calls himself "no spring chicken," says he's "really impressed how behavior, lifestyle, attitude and physical activity can have an impressive impact on the quality of life in later years." Exercise, he adds, "is not the ultimate panacea, but it has been shown to have a reduction in the risk. Anything that's easily modified and fairly low cost to reduce the cost of these two diseases, I think is good to know about."  

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