Increased levels of physical activity can significantly reduce the odds of depression, even among people who are genetically predisposed to the condition, according to a new study from Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).
In a paper published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, the team reported that individuals who engaged in at least several hours of exercise each week were less likely to be diagnosed with a new episode of depression, even in the face of high genetic risk for the disorder.
Drawing on genomic and electronic health record data from nearly 8,000 participants in the Partners Healthcare Biobank, the new study is the first to show how physical activity can influence depression despite genetic risk. Researchers followed patients who filled out a survey about their lifestyle habits (including physical activity) when they enrolled in the biobank. They then mined millions of electronic health record data points over the next two years and identified people who received diagnoses related to depression. They also calculated genetic risk scores for each participant, combining information across the entire genome into a single score that reflected a person’s inherited risk for depression.
What they found was that people with higher genetic risk were more likely to be diagnosed with depression over the next two years. Significantly, though, people who were more physically active at baseline were less likely to develop depression, even after accounting for genetic risk. In addition, higher levels of physical activity were protective for people even with the highest genetic risk scores for depression.
“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,” said Karmel Choi of MGH and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the lead author of the study. “On average, about 35 additional minutes of physical activity each day may help people to reduce their risk and protect against future depression episodes.”