Exercise may stave off depression, even among those at higher genetic risk

Several hours of physical activity each week may protect people from bouts of depression, even among those who are genetically predisposed to the condition, according to a new study.

Researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed genomic and electronic health record data from about 8,000 people enrolled in the Partners Healthcare Biobank. They looked at surveys that participants had filled out about their lifestyle habits, including exercise. They used electronic health record data to identify people who’d received diagnoses related to depression, and calculated genetic risk scores for depression for each participant.

They found that people who were more physically active were less likely to develop depression, even those with higher genetic risk for doing so. It didn’t matter what sort of physical activity they engaged in; both high-intensity activity such as aerobics or dance and lower-intensity activity such as yoga or stretching were associated with lower risk of depression. The researchers estimated that about 35 minutes of physical activity each day could help reduce risk.

Lead author of the study was Karmel Choi, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Chan School. “Our findings strongly suggest that, when it comes to depression, genes are not destiny and that being physically active has the potential to neutralize the added risk of future episodes in individuals who are genetically vulnerable,” she said in a November 5, 2019 Harvard Gazette article.

Jordan Smoller, professor in the Department of Epidemiology, was senior author.

Read the Harvard Gazette article: Lower risk of depression with elevated exercise

Read a U.S. News & World Report article: Exercise Can Help Prevent Depression, Even for Those at High Risk

Learn more

New evidence that physical activity can lower depression risk (Harvard Chan School news)