New research funded by CARDI finds that regular exercise reduces depression in older people, whether patients report pain or not.

The all-Ireland study led by Dr Frank Doyle, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, examined the links between physical activity, pain and depressive symptoms across three datasets. The study found that pain is associated with increased depression and physical activity is associated with lower depression levels. It also found that having pain does not stop people benefitting from physical activity. Overall the findings suggest that health professionals can consider and promote physical activity for the treatment of depressive symptoms and mental well-being, irrespective of pain levels.


Key findings

  • Pain is associated with increased risk for depressive symptoms in older people and is also a potential reason for non-engagement in physical activity (Mossey et al., 2000).
  • In the Republic of Ireland, 33% of adults over 50 engage in none or only low levels of physical activity (TILDA, 2011).
  • In Northern Ireland, 55% engage in low or no levels of physical activity (DHSSPS, 2011).
  • In the Republic of Ireland, three quarters of older adults reported none or only mild pain in the past week compared to 45% of older adults in Northern Ireland.
  • Severe pain or discomfort was reported by 9% of Republic of Ireland older adults and 11% of Northern Ireland older adults (TILDA, 2011) (DHSSPS, 2011)

Dr Frank Doyle says, “While it has been known for some time that physical activity protects against depressive symptoms, and that pain increases depressive symptoms, it was unknown how these variables interacted with each other.  We found that pain did not mediate the protective association between physical activity and depression. The findings suggest that clinicians should consider recommending increased physical activity in older people, irrespective of pain levels.”


Read the full report and research brief.

For comment or interviews please contact Nicola Donnelly, CARDI: [email protected] or 01 478 6308