It’s well understood and accepted that physical exercise is important to prevent childhood obesity. But new science shows us that it might be equally important in the prevention of childhood depression.
We’ve known for a long time that exercise is a powerful antidepressant in adults. But this new research, conducted in Norway, suggests that kids who enjoy moderate to vigorous physical activity on a regular basis are much less likely to develop depression.
The Norwegian study shows that kids who are physically active between ages six and eight are much less likely to have depression symptoms two years later.
The study’s findings were published in the journal Pediatrics. It was conducted by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Many people are unaware that it is even possible for children to have depression. It presents differently in children than in adults, but is still the same diagnosis. Children can exhibit depression through frequent crying, exaggerated anger, disinterest in activities they used to enjoy, diminished appetite, isolation and non-communication.
The researchers observed hundreds of kids for four years, trying to parse out relationships between their exercise habits and depression symptoms.
The children wore accelerometers around their waists for a week at a time. The data was referenced with mental health assessment scores.
The study’s authors say of the results, “At both age 6 and 8 years, higher MVPA (moderate to vigorous physical activity) predicted fewer symptoms of major depressive disorders 2 years later.”
“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, an associate professor of psychology at NTNU.
“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.”
The authors speculate that the beneficial effects of exercise for kids might go beyond the purely physiological. They think that physical activity may distract them from rumination. Sports may also give the kids opportunities to build self-esteem and improve their social integration with other children.
Some research even suggests that rough play between kids is important for their emotional development.
While exercise only made a relatively small difference in the study subjects’ depression symptoms, it was an effect that was roughly on par with that of more traditional psychological treatments.
The study’s authors are now calling for more research to be done into the topic. If their conclusions are correct, it might represent a cheap, very scalable intervention that could be immediately put into practice.