Sooraj Shah ’24
Figure 1: Long term exercise such as skiing may reduce chances of developing depression
Depression affects 5-10% of people in the United States. Combined with other disorders, depression can consume about 20-30% of a person’s lifetime. The most common therapeutic strategy to treat depression includes serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which increase serotonin levels in the brain. A major drawback to this treatment, however, can be side effects such as gastrointestinal disease. Exercise as an alternative to antidepressants has been a focus of recent research. Multiple studies had been conducted for a small number of patients for a short period of time, with findings that most patients relapse in a short time. A study led by Dr. Martina Svensson, professor of Experimental Medical Science in Lund University, Sweden, focused on the long-term monitoring of long distance ski racers for the development of depression in comparison to non-skiers from the same area.
Skiers from Sweden taking part in the world’s longest ski race, called Vasaloppet, were recruited to participate in the study. These included 197,685 skiers along with a representative 197,684 non-skiers from the same location. In order to only monitor the development of depression in otherwise healthy individuals, participants with existing conditions such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease were excluded, along with those with mental disorders including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Participants’ race times were then recorded from 1989 to 2010, serving as a measure for fitness.
Total results after 10 years showed 3075 individuals, accounting for 0.78% of participants, were diagnosed with depression. Of those, 2045 were from the non-skier group and 1030 were from the skier group. A 50% lower risk of depression was observed in skiers, and men completing the race faster than others experienced an even lower development of depression. Women faced the opposite effects of skiing. Almost 74% of women who had the least exercise had experienced the best effects on depression rates. Svensson determined that testing the effects of exercise on depression in women must be done separately, and attributes psychological factors as being the possible reason behind the discrepancy.
The usage of exercise may grow to be more effective than medication alone, but this is yet to be tested. Several factors affect the development of depression in individuals, but controlling the exercise level of participants may serve as a preventative measure in the development of depression. Dr. Svensson’s future research in this field will focus on the use of exercise along with medication, as well as the separate testing of the development of depression in women.
- Martina Svensson et. al, Long distance ski racing is associated with lower long-term incidence of depression in a population based, large-scale study, Psychiatry Research, 281, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2019.112546.