prevent heart disease

The best way to prevent heart disease and depression is simple: just exercise

Everyone understands how fitness benefits your body. But its benefits for your mind are gaining mainstream attention: more and more research indicates exercise protects against chronic stress, depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.

A new study has found a high fitness level in mid-life — think forties and fifties — is linked to a lower risk of depression from age 65 onwards, and a lower risk of death from heart disease (even among those with depression).

“These new insights illustrate the importance of fitness to maintain both physical and psychological health as we age,” said Dr Benjamin Willis, director of epidemiology at The Cooper Institute and lead author of the study, in a statement.

“Now we know that the long-term benefits [of fitness] and the connection between mind-body wellness are more significant than we thought.”

The study examined data collected from almost 18,000 US adults (mostly men) over a four-decade period. The analysis revealed that, compared to those with low fitness in mid-life, those with high fitness had 16 percent lower risk of depression, and about a 60 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, whether or not they had depression.

That’s significant for Australians: cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death, while depression hits about 1 million of us in any given year.

“There are clear links between fitness, heart health and brain health,” said Willis. “It’s never too late to get off the couch to improve fitness and prevent heart disease at any age.”

The paper, published in the journal JAMA Psychology, noted aerobic training is a way most people can improve their fitness and prevent heart disease. That’s activities we commonly label “cardio” — such as brisk walking, running or jogging, swimming and cycling — done at a moderate to high intensity.

While the research suggests a strong link between a high level of fitness and a lowered risk of depression, it’s an observational study — so it can’t directly prove fitness drops the likelihood of becoming depressed, or that other factors might be responsible.