Longitudinal study of former athletes’ activity and anxiety levels

The Introduction

Stressed womanMental health, especially depression, and functioning of daily living are widely acknowledged in elderly people. Physical inactivity may be the strongest behavioural predictor of subsequent disability and mood with several cross-sectional studies show that depression and anxiety symptoms more common among subjects with low levels of physical activity than among physically active subjects. So what is the link between exercise and mental health and does a history of prior training into older age help prevent mental health issues into older age? This study strongly suggests the need to stay active to prevent anxiety disorders into older age.

The Research

The Finnish researchers examined whether factors related to type of sport participated in as young adults and level of and changes in physical activity later in life were able to predict changes in mood as well as functioning during a 6-year follow-up. A group of 504 male Finnish former athletes (represented Finland between 1920 and 1965) and 349 non-athletes was followed up for changes in physical activity, in relation to subsequent self-reported mood and functioning of daily living in 1985, 1995, and 2001. The mean age of the whole group was 68.6 years in 2001.

The Results

There was a high risk for onset of depression among those with a history of combat sports (boxers, wrestlers) as younger men. Those most inactive into older age were the most at risk of depression into older age. A low level of physical activity in 1985 predicted a decrease in physical functioning between 1995 and 2001. An increase in physical activity between 1985 and 1995 protected against onset of anxiety between 1995 and 2001. Interestingly, a history of team sport participation significantly protected against a decrease in physical functioning at the follow-up. In summary, physical activity for elderly seems to have an important role in reducing the progress of deficiencies in physical functioning and in preventing onset of anxiety.

The So What?

While we have known for years that physical activity into older age has great physical health benefits, these results also highlight the importance of physical activity for mental health benefits into older age. This study also highlights that an active lifestyle at a younger age predicts activity levels into older age but that it is also never too late to start exercising for both physical and mental health benefits.

Backmand, H., Kaprio, J. Kujala, U., Sarna, S.  (2009). Physical activity, mood and the functioning of daily living: a longitudinal study among former elite athletes and referents in middle and old age. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics. 48(1): 1-9.

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