Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Coláiste Ríoga na Máinleá in Éirinn

Regular physical activity staves off depression in older people

06 May 2014
New research finds that regular exercise reduces depression in older people, whether patients report pain or not

An all-Ireland study led by Dr Frank Doyle, Department of Psychology, RCSI, 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.

The research was funded by the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland (CARDI) as part of a series of projects designed to examine key issues affecting older people by using official data sources.

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 said, ‘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'

The full report and research brief can be found at

This research was funded by the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland (CARDI) and carried out by a research team led by Dr Frank Doyle from RCSI's Department of Psychology.

The Centre for Ageing Research and Development (CARDI) is a not-for-profit organisation which promotes the research into ageing to help ensure that older people live healthy, engaged and vibrant lives. It promotes and communicates new directions in cross-disciplinary research and provides support to a community of researchers in Ireland, North and South, through its activities. For more information please visit:

Founded in 1784, RCSI's mission is to develop healthcare leaders who make a difference worldwide. RCSI is a not-for-profit health sciences organisation which focuses on education and research to drive positive change in all areas of human health worldwide. RCSI is headquartered in Dublin and is a recognised College of the National University of Ireland.