When it comes to staying fit outdoors, it doesn’t get much better than gliding through crystal white snow across a gorgeous landscape with the simple sounds of nature as your company. And if you believe that activities like cross-country skiing are also good for your mental health, new research from Sweden shows you’re right. After analyzing health records of cross-country skiers, scientists found that they had a lower risk of depression and dementia.
“As brain researchers, we have had the unique opportunity to analyze an exceptionally large group of very physically active people over two decades,” said research team leader and Lund University professor Tomas Deierborg in a university blog post, “and we have unraveled some interesting results.”
Researchers at Lund University and Uppsala University conducted a study on roughly 200,000 people who participated in Vasaloppet—a cross-country skiing race in Sweden—between 1989 and 2010. Compared with a similarly sized control group of the general population, they found that the number of skiers diagnosed with dementia and depression was 50 percent lower than the control group. The skiers also had a reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological disorder.
Among two decades of Vasaloppet finishers, the researchers found that 233 people had developed dementia, compared to 319 cases of the disease among non-racers. In addition, 1,030 skiers were later diagnosed with depression, compared to 2,045 in the control group. The numbers for Parkinson’s were less definitive, but the Vasaloppet skiers still fared better than average: Only 119 of them were diagnosed with the disease, versus 164 people in the general population. Any way you look at it, the skiers were clearly the ones with the reduced risk of disease.
Interestingly, researchers found that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, another major neurological disorder, was not reduced among the skiers. That actually contradicts previous studies in the field that suggest physical activity can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s.
“The mechanisms behind this still need to be investigated,” said doctoral student and study author Tomas Olsson, “but it seems that those who are physically active have a ‘motor reserve’ that postpones the onset of the disease.”
The findings are strong evidence that the benefits of physical activity go well beyond heart health and muscle-building—they can give your nervous system a boost, too.
“If a person trains a lot,” said Olsson, “it may be possible to maintain mobility for longer despite the pathological changes in the brain.”