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Study: Physical Activity Prevents Depression in Older Adults During COVID-19

Even Walking Can Combat Mental Health Problems Caused by Social Isolation

By Bemnet Faris

Woman stretches on a mat on the floor

Photo by iStock

A new study led by a UMD researcher shows that staying active while following COVID-19 social distancing guidelines can help older people stave off depression during the pandemic.

Staying active while following COVID-19 social distancing guidelines can help older people stave off depression during the pandemic, according to a new study led by a University of Maryland School of Public Health researcher.

Published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, the study is the first to examine the association between physical activity levels and mental health symptoms in older adults during the public health crisis.

While social distancing and self-isolation measures can alleviate the burden on health care systems and save lives, that isolation is linked to a higher risk of mental health problems and sedentary behaviors in older adults, said J. Carson Smith, a UMD professor of kinesiology and the study’s lead author. 

He and his co-researchers surveyed 1,046 adults ages 50 and up about their depression, anxiety and physical activity levels between April 9 and 30. They found that participants who performed more physical activity experienced lower levels of depression-like symptoms.

“We found that doing light-intensity activity, such as walking and also higher-intensity activity were protective against symptoms of depression, which means that everyone has the opportunity to guard their mental health during the pandemic,” Smith said.

With the possibility that many older adults may need to maintain isolation in the coming months, the researchers noted that it is crucial to determine safe, healthy ways for older adults to maintain their mental health.

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