An active life is a good way for an older person to beat the blues, say researchers who wish they knew more about how it works. People who are more physically active tend to score in the upbeat range of tests that measure mood, according to researchers.
That's been established with younger people and is apparently the case with older ones, but there's less research specifically on seniors and their problems, the experts say.
The best information on people past middle age come from large-group studies, according to a review article in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. The studies find associations between being active and feeling relatively more cheerful, and being inactive and feeling relatively more glum, the article said.
The paper focused on depressive disorders, which are more easily treatable without drugs than is clinical depression.
"In general in these exercise studies, we have seen individuals who are classified as depressed because they show flat mood based on questionnaires but don't satisfy the criteria for a medical diagnosis," said researcher Rod K. Dishman.
But teasing out the effects of exercise or inactivity in older people is difficult, the paper said. For instance, researchers must account for higher rates of physical problems, ranging from sleep disorders to strokes, which can make the victim depressed, the article said.
Nonetheless, the population studies show a consistent trend, the paper said.
"If you see anything in a population study, there is probably something out there," said Dishman, one of the paper's authors. "The signal must be very strong from somewhere in that mass of randomness."
The literature review says experiments have yet to prove that exercise makes people happier, as opposed to the possibility that happier people tend more to exercise.
But the journal's editor thinks the authors are understating the case. "I would say it depends on what you mean by compelling evidence," said Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, an associate professor of exercise science at Ohio's Kent State University. He thinks the evidence is strong enough to say that exercise improves mood.
Experts dispute how effective exercise is. Standard measurements, such as recalling recent physical activity, have not been established to work as well in the elderly, the article said.
The effect looks worthwhile to Keith W. Johnsgard, professor emeritus of psychology at San Jose State University in California. Three-quarters of patients who use exercise can expect improvements in three to five weeks, he said.
But a separate study in the journal does not support this.
Researchers at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., assigned women aged 67-85 to a walking exercise group or a non-exercise control group. After 12 weeks of 30- to 40-minute walks, five days a week, there was no significant difference in their mood states, the report said.
But the Appalachian State researchers also found that long-term highly conditioned female athletes, ages 65-84, had more positive mood states than their sedentary peers. The experts figure that women capable of this kind of dedication are probably more upbeat to begin with.