Depression is a risk factor for heart disease. New research now explores the link between these two conditions, finding that for many who have depression, exercise is the best treatment that can keep both the heart and the mind healthy.

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The earlier in life you start exercising, the better your chances of staving off both depression and heart disease.

Depression raises the risk of heart disease in people who haven’t had a history of cardiovascular problems.

For those who have already been diagnosed with heart disease, depression raises their mortality risk.

In fact, some studies have revealed that people with depression are at high risk of arrhythmia.

Others, meanwhile, have pointed out that people who develop depression after being diagnosed with heart disease are twice as likely to die from it.

So, what can be done to prevent this bleak scenario? The solution might lie in exercising more, say researchers, as studies have continuously pointed out that in some cases, working out can be as effective as antidepressant medication.

But, when the feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness that characterize depression seep into every aspect of your life, it may seem impossible to find the motivation to exercise.

A new study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, shows the many ways in which depression negatively affects health and highlights the benefits of exercise for relieving depression and keeping the heart healthy.

Also, study co-author Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, the director of the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, lays out some useful tips for overcoming the problem of finding the drive to exercise when you’re depressed.

Dr. Benjamin Willis, the director of Epidemiology at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, TX, is the first author of the paper.

Dr. Willis and colleagues examined data on almost 18,000 participants, whose cardiorespiratory health was measured when they were 50 years old, on average.

Using administrative data from participants’ Medicare files, the researchers analyzed correlations between their cardiorespiratory fitness at the age of 50 and the prevalence of depression and heart disease in later life.

Overall, they revealed that participants with high fitness levels at midlife had a 56 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease after receiving a diagnosis of depression.

The scientists also found correlations with other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and kidney disease.

Such illnesses, the authors point out, can affect the efficacy of antidepressants. For these people, exercise may be the best treatment for depression.

“There is enough evidence to show that the effect of low fitness on depression and heart disease is real,” Dr. Trivedi says. “But further study is needed to establish the mechanism by which this effect happens.”

Dr. Trivedi cites studies that showed that people with depression can frequently do three quarters of the amount of physical activity that they’re recommended.

“Maintaining a healthy dose of exercise is difficult, but it can be done,” he says. “It just requires more effort and addressing unique barriers to regular exercise.”

So, what are some of the ways in which one can address such barriers?

  • Try dedicating the same amount of time to working out each day, at the same time.
  • Try not to get discouraged if you miss a few days. Instead, just resume exercise as soon as you’re able to.
  • Track your progress.
  • Keep the workout activities varied and fun by trying something new every day.
  • You can also charge a friend with the task of keeping you accountable if you don’t exercise.

“The earlier you maintain fitness, the better chance of preventing depression, which in the long run will help lower the risk of heart disease,” urges Dr. Trivedi.

There is value to not starting a medication if it’s not needed […] Being active and getting psychotherapy are sometimes the best prescription, especially in younger patients who don’t have severe depression.”

Dr. Madhukar Trivedi

Dr. Willis also chimes in here, saying, “These new insights demonstrate the ongoing importance of fitness throughout the lifespan.”

“Now we know that the long-term benefits, and the connection between mind-body wellness, are more significant than we thought. We hope our study will highlight the role of fitness and physical activity in early prevention efforts by physicians in promoting healthy aging.”