- Physically active six- and eight-year-olds showed fewer symptoms of depression after two years of follow up.
- Sedentary behavior did not predict depression, and depression did not predict inactiveness.
- Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity may serve as a complementary method to prevent and treat childhood depression.
Physical activity lowers the risk of depression in adults and young adults and now the same is proved in children.
Results from a new study are show that children receive the same beneficial effect from being active. Moderate to vigorous physical activity that leaves kids sweaty or out of breath is considered physically active.
‘The number of symptoms of major depression declined from ages 6 to 8 years in children involved in moderate to vigorous physical activity.’
Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and NTNU Social Research have followed hundreds of children over four years to see if they could find a correlation between physical activity and symptoms of depression.
Researchers examined 800 six-years-olds and conducted follow-up examinations with about 700 of them when they were eight and ten years old. Physical activity was measured with accelerometers, which served as a kind of advanced pedometer, and parents were interviewed about their children's mental health.
"Being active, getting sweaty and roughhousing offer more than just physical health benefits. They also protect against depression," says Tonje Zahl, a PhD candidate at NTNU.
Physically active six- and eight-year-olds showed fewer symptoms of depression when they were examined two years later. Physical activity thus seems to protect against the development of depression.
"This is important to know, because it may suggest that physical activity can be used to prevent and treat depression already in childhood," says Silje Steinsbekk, associate professor in NTNU's Department of Psychology.
Steinsbekk stresses that these results should now be tested in randomized studies where physical activity is increased and further examine the symptoms of depression over time than those who do not participate.
"We also studied whether children who have symptoms of depression are less physically active over time, but didn't find that to be the case," she says.
Previous findings in adolescents and adults showed that sedentary lifestyles - like watching television and computer gaming - are associated with depression, but the NTNU children's study found no correlation between depression and a sedentary lifestyle.
Depressive symptoms did not lead to greater inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle did not increase the risk of depression.
Parents and health professionals should encourage physical activity. They must ensure that children get a little sweaty and breathless. Try a bike ride or outdoor play. Limiting children's TV or iPad screen time is not enough. Children need actual increased physical activity.
- Tonje Zahl et al., Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Symptoms of Major Depression in Middle Childhood, Pediatrics (2017)