People who improve their physical condition — or who manage to reduce their depressive symptoms — live longer, new research has shown. Illustration photo: Colourbox

Depressed? Never too late to improve your health

Are you in poor physical shape or struggling with depressive symptoms? Maybe both? You’ll live longer by improving either condition – even if you’re getting up in years.

Depression is a common mental disorder and one of the main causes of health loss, according to the World Health Organization. Worldwide more than 350 million people suffer from depression.

Physical and mental health are probably strongly linked. Earlier research has found that people with depression or depressive symptoms increase their risk of developing cardiovascular disease and of premature death. In the context of research, the term “premature death” is defined as dying earlier than the average life expectancy.

Just how fit are you?

Researchers calculated study participants’ physical condition using NTNU’s Fitness Calculator.

You can test your own fitness level on the NTNU Fitness Calculator website.

“We know that depression is devastating for our health, and we know that being in good physical condition reduces the risk of a variety of diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and mental disorders like depression and anxiety. Being physically fit also lowers the risk of premature death, compared to being in poor physical shape,” says Trude Carlsen. She is a PhD candidate in NTNU’s Department of Public Health and Nursing, and part of the Cardiac Exercise Research Group (CERG).

Hope for the elderly?

But can we still positively affect our health by improving our fitness level or alleviating our depressive symptoms when we’re approaching our 50s or retirement age – or even our 80s? NTNU researchers set out to find the answer to just this question. Study participants included 15 000 middle aged or elderly people who took part in the second and third rounds of the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (HUNT).

Trude Carlsen, NTNU. Photo: Amanda Gerhardsen

Not surprisingly, the researchers found the lowest risk of premature death among individuals who exhibited high fitness levels and low incidence of depressive symptoms over time. The happy finding is that people who manage to improve their fitness – or to reduce their depressive symptoms – also reduce their risk of premature death. Simply put, they live longer.

“It’s not too late to take action to improve one or the other factor even when you’re older,” says Carlsen.

How researchers arrived at their results

The physical condition of the study participants was calculated using the fitness calculator developed by CERG. Cardiorespiratory fitness is the best measure of overall physical fitness and has proven to be the key to a long and healthy life.

“We measured depressive symptoms using a questionnaire that the participants filled out themselves. During the follow-up period, we obtained information about who died from the Norwegian Cause of Death Registry,” Carlsen said.

Carlsen pointed out that she based her research on depressive symptoms, not on diagnosed depression. Examples of depressive symptoms include drowsiness, feeling sapped of all energy, not looking forward to things that were previously pleasurable and interesting for you, sleep issues, and poor self-esteem and self-confidence.

A little sweat twice a week is good

What does it take to achieve better health?

“Regular physical activity is the most important way to maintain a high level of fitness or to improve it. It’s free medicine and affects one’s health in so many more areas than just being happier and in better shape,” says Carlsen.

“Regular physical activity has also been shown to reduce depressive symptoms. Breathing hard and working up a sweat two to three times a week can do wonders for our health,” she adds.

“Our results illustrate how important it is for physicians and other healthcare professionals to regularly evaluate the degree of their patients’ depressive symptoms and to calculate their fitness levels. There are simple tools for calculating fitness, and questionnaires that can measure depressive symptoms. Healthcare professionals can easily calculate an individual’s fitness using a few simple questions and measurements and the Conditional Calculator. Improving either physical or mental conditioning can significantly and positively impact our health,” Carlsen says.

Carlsen’s research results were recently published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings Pub Med journal:

* Long-term Changes in Depressive Symptoms and Estimated Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Risk of All-Cause Mortality: The Nord-Trøndelag Health Study

* More about Carlsen’s research project (in Norwegian)

* Podcast with Trude Carlsen (in Norwegian): Glade og spreke lever lenger [Happy and fit people live longer]: