Study Links Leisure Time Physical Activity with Lower Risk of Depression

Study Links Leisure Time Physical Activity with Lower Risk of Depression

Around 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience an episode of depression serious enough to warrant treatment at some point in their lives. Minor bouts of depression or depressive symptoms affect many more people, making it one of the most common mental health issues in modern society. A new study has provided further evidence of the benefits of exercise in preventing and potentially helping with depressive symptoms, finding that exercising three times a week lowers risk of depression by around 16 percent. The finding may have important implications for the 19 percent of men and 26 percent of women in England who are currently classed as inactive, especially those who also experience depressive symptoms.

The Study – Investigating Depression and Exercise Over Three Decades

The authors of this study used participants from the 1958 British Birth Cohort, following 11,000 participants who had information on their depressive symptoms and how often they’re physically active at 23, 33, 42 or 50 years of age. Physical activities was measured by how many times per week participants were physically active, and the top 10 percent for depression symptoms were classified as being depressed.

What They Found – Young Adults Can Lower Depression Risk with Exercise

Exercise Creates Lower Risk of DepressionThe researchers found that each additional activity session per week lowered the risk of depression by 6 percent. People who reported more symptoms of depression at age 23 were less physically active, on average, but the association weakened as age increased. For those who were inactive at age 23, if they didn’t change their activity level, their number of symptoms remained unchanged five years later. For those aged 23 who increased their activity to three times per week within the following five years, their number of depression symptoms decreased by an average of 18 percent.

For adults in their 20s to 40s overall, becoming physically active three times per week reduced their risk of getting depression by 16 percent, assuming that the association observed is a causal one. Lead author on the study, Dr. Snehal Pinto Pereira, added that “Importantly, this effect was seen across the whole population and not just in those at high risk of clinical depression. The more physically active people were, the fewer depressive symptoms they reported.” He also suggested that the findings could be looked at as indicating that depression symptoms may serve as a barrier to physical activity for young adults, having important implications for public health.


Previous studies looking into the effect of physical activity on depression symptoms haven’t been conclusive, but the sample size and long-term nature of this research provides pretty strong evidence of the link between exercise and mental health. The findings have most relevance for the large numbers of inactive men and women in Britain, adding likely psychological benefits to the existing (and well-known) physical benefits of increased activity. However, they also serve as an important reminder that getting active could genuinely be an effective way of fighting depression or depressive symptoms for those currently struggling. It might not be what you want to do, but getting active really could make you feel better.