Can physical activity help depression?

9 answers | Last updated: Mar 16, 2012
A fellow caregiver asked...

Does physical activity help depression? My father-in-law has been suffering depression for last five years. He's taken to sleeping until noon and my mother-in-law leaves him alone while she plays golf. I'm worried that this lack of stimulation is just making his depression worse. A senior day care center would at least provide some activity for him but he refuses to go. Shall we attempt to force him to go or just let him sleep all day?


Expert Answers

I agree with Missy that you should take your father-in-law in for a physical exam as soon as possible.  As she pointed out, he may be suffering from other, undiagnosed health problems. At the least, the physician should be able to offer suggestions for more effective treatment of his depression. 

I also agree with the other readers' excellent ideas about involving your father-in-law in activities and asking for his help and advice. It sounds like he's lonely and bored, as well as depressed, and whatever you can do to give him a sense of involvement and purpose should lift his spirits, at least a little.

You said that he refuses to go to your local senior center, but I wonder if he would be open to trying other activities, like volunteer work, or classes at the local community college?  Check out our local directory to find out more about resources in your area.

Keep in touch and let us know how it goes.


Community Answers

Littlesister answered...
I have two suggestions. The first would be to make certain your father-in-law's physicians knows the severity of his symptoms. It's possible there is a medication or other treatment that may provide him some relief. There's another possibility that it's not his depression that's causing him to sleep for extended periods of time. Secondly, since your father-in-law has suffered with depression for so long, it's possible that the thought of getting out and doing activities overwhelms him. If what you're suggesting doesn't appeal to him, the likelihood of him agreeing to participate is not good. Perhaps you could start smaller. Does he respond to animals? Maybe a sense of duty to care for an animal would help him engage with something/someone more rather than sleeping so much. Maybe he would respond to a new hobby? Does he sleep as much when visitors come to his home? Perhaps a routine visit with a friend/family member/neighbor would help him engage more.

Raynebow answered...

In addition to what Missy said above, I'd also suggest that in the face of feeling overwhelmed, set a time frame for it. "Let's walk just for ten minutes, and then we can be done." In this way there's no open-ended feeling of "It's too much to commit to" and instead there's a definitive stopping point. In my experience, he'll come to find that ten minutes felt good and that fifteen might be great next time around.


Rebecca answered...
A friend of mine has a similar problem with her dad. The siblings take turns calling him or visiting him with specific requests or questions for him... Expressing a need for him to help them in some way. Even pretty inane things like, Dad, can you tell me what the mileage is on the car.

Crys answered...

It sounds like your MIL has resigned herself to his condition and that he is so immersed in it that he doesn't think he can participate in anything, such as the senior center.   Perhaps you can get his physician to help.  He could refer your FIL to a specialist that can determine his medication and/or therapy.  All of the previous answers above are great.

My BF suffered a stroke.  He's in his 50's will require 24/7 attention for the 30-40 years.  His situation has led to depression.  He won't discuss his therapy.  No, we can't do what we used to, but I have pushed his HHA to take him out for air, or for coffee.  Simple, close to home and low stress levels.  I take him out for a couple of hours on the weekends.  He usually finds it lifts his mood, even if it's a bit.


Spockula answered...

I'm at a total loss. My hubby has Schizophrenia, emphysema, Barrett's esophagus, & other med. problems. He's alone way too much. He's tried working part-time, hobbies, etc. He's still not active enough & alone way too much. One can only be there so much.....someone's gotta work! His family isn't there enough, or, he refuses to go. This is how people slip through the cracks. It's very sad. "You can lead a horse to water, but, you cannot make him drink".  So true!


Shortnsweet answered...

IMO I'd suggest making an appointment with a psychiatrist for the depression. I was being treated for depression for my family doctor for years and reached a point where I attempted suicide several times. I was on the wrongs meds because I wasn't correctly diagnosed. I am bipolar, not depressed. A psychiatrist is a doctor that monitors medication with mental health issues. A general practitioner, while good at what he/she does, is not expertly trained in the proper meds to treat mental health issues.

Yes, exercise helps with the depression but your FIL might not be in the right place mentally to start such a task. Get him checked out by a doctor first and then offer to take walks with him. When I take regular walks it improves my state of mind.


Spockula answered...

Again, My Hubby is alone too much, & disabled. He walks to store only when necessary, & can't seem to get back into any sort of hobby, or social contact. I feel "the system" has failed him. It's sad.


Marciamspt answered...

Exercise has been proven to help with depression but it needs to be consistently done 7 days a week to begin with.

Most of my home health care patients are depressed. In fact, most of US are! We just still have the strength to escape through working, sports etc.

If exercising 7 days a week sounds exhausting, start with asking your loved one to commit to just one walk down the driveway and back per day. That's it, just one.

Make no more demands or suggestions and wait to see if additional trip suggestions come from them! When and if they do, this is how I know when my patients are open to doing other things as they are likely benefiting from the numerous affects of just one walk a day.

If the drive is too long... start with half way or even just from the chair to the front door... where ever you start must be do-able and NOT overwhelming.

I've contacted family members to send cards once a week so that a trip to the mailbox becomes something to look forward to...

Just a few thoughts as home care physical therapist!

Good luck! Marcia Oliver MSPT, CPT