Depression in seniors is surprisingly common and can take a huge toll on the lives of the seniors who suffer from it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that depression affects over 75 million people over 65 each year in the United States alone.
And without help, it’s a disease that can become deadly. Seniors make up about 16% of all suicide deaths in the US.
Even for the seniors that don’t reach that point, depression has a severe negative impact on quality of life in their remaining years. And it tends to start people down a self-perpetuating cycle that’s hard to pull yourself out of.
A depressed senior is less likely to maintain contact with their social connections, which leads to loneliness that will further fuel their depression. Depression causes problems sleeping, which makes getting through the day and keeping up with errands, hobbies, and healthy habits harder. And it can lead to a lack of appetite, which further reduces a senior’s energy levels and makes it harder to actively do something to address the problem.
If a senior you love appears to be struggling with depression, the sooner you can help guide them toward solutions, the better. Urging them to seek therapy should be a top priority, but therapy’s not the only tool they have to help them overcome depression.
One thing that’s clearly been shown to help with depression is the same thing seniors have heard recommended time and again for a number of benefits it can provide: physical exercise. Knowing how to help your parents stay active is a great place to start.
What the Research Shows on Exercise and Depression
A number of scientific studies have found a clear link between regular exercise and mood improvements. In a 1999 study, people with depression that underwent an aerobic exercise program saw improvement at roughly the same rates as a group that took medication for their depression (Zoloft, in this case). Importantly, they also found that the improved effects lasted longer with exercise than with the meds. A 1991 study showed that the method of exercise doesn’t have to be anything strenuous to have an effect, even just going for walks three times a week can make a difference.
These are just two examples of a long list of research studies that all back up the idea that exercise can help prevent depression before it starts, fight it off once you have it, and just generally improve mood.
But if it’s hard for young people with depression to work up the resolve to fit exercise into their lives, it’s even harder for seniors who have to worry about the risk of falls and injuries.
Safe Exercises to Fight Off Senior Depression
Luckily, there are a number of exercises you can try out that will improve your mood while keeping your risk of injury to a minimum.
- Go for brisk daily walks.
You don’t have to do intense cardio or weight lifting to get the depression-lifting effects of exercise; you can simply start going for walks. Start walking for a half hour or more each day. Pick a time of day when it’s nice out – that’s probably mornings or evenings in the summer and afternoons in the winter. Set yourself an alarm if you think it will help, and look up the local parks in your area if you want to get out of your own neighborhood.
Figure out what it will take to get started and do it. Once it becomes a habit, it will be easier to maintain and you’ll likely find you start looking forward to your daily walks.
- Do tai chi.
Tai chi is not only safe, but also particularly recommended for seniors because of how much it can help with balance, reduce the risk of falls, and strengthen the immune system. A lot of research backs up how valuable tai chi can be for helping seniors with a host of different health issues common to aging, and it’s relatively easy for beginners to get started with. The challenging aspect of tai chi has nothing to do with being strenuous (it’s not) and everything to do with getting you to focus more carefully on your body and its movements.
One of the greatest things about doing exercises in the water as a senior is that you can’t fall down. That right there reduces a lot of your risk of injury. But on top of that water exercise improves strength training because the resistance of the water means you get even more out of each move you do. And if you have arthritis, water aerobics are one of the best options you have for exercising without pain.
- Play Wii Fit
Wii Fit offers exercises you can do without leaving that house that have been shown to make a difference. Wii Fit is interactive, meaning that it comes with a balance board that can track your movements and give you feedback as you go. That helps ensure you’re doing the moves right, and can incentivize you to do more as you improve. Wii Fit wasn’t specifically made for seniors, but it’s found a lot of success with the senior market for people who want a fun and easy way to get into the habit of exercising more.
- Do yoga.
Yoga’s become popular in the US over the past couple of decades for good reason. It’s good for balance, for improving your sleep habits and for reducing stress. If you’re new to yoga, it’s best to start with a trained instructor who can help you modify any moves as needed and ensure your form for each position is correct so you don’t risk injury. As with many types of exercise though, once you become familiar with it, you should be able to safely begin to do it on your own from home.
Depression’s a big deal. If you’re worried you’re experiencing depression or think a loved one is exhibiting the signs of being depressed, don’t hesitate to take steps to address it. It may take some time and work to get back to a place of feeling ok, but once you’re there, you’ll be glad you made the effort.