Exercise isn’t a cure for depression, but being active has been shown to alleviate some symptoms of depression in both teens and adults. Depending on the severity of the mood disorder, it could go a long way toward helping problems like negativity and rumination.
Scientists are now investigating if the same benefits might apply to young children, an age group with increasing cases of depression. In a new report published in Pediatrics, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology took advantage of data from nearly 800 six year olds who were asked about their exercise habits and depressive symptoms and followed up when they were eight and 10. Overall, children who exercised more, at a moderate to vigorous intensity, showed fewer depressive symptoms years later.
“I think that physicians, parents and policy makers should facilitate physical activity among children,” says Tonje Zahl, the study’s lead author. “The focus should be on physical activity not just for the here and now benefits, such as improving blood pressure, heart rate and other physical benefits, but for the mental health benefits over the long term,” she says. All children should be targeted for this, she adds.
Zahl and her team also wondered about the true connection between exercise and mood disorders like depression. Was depression making children more sedentary and less active, or did being less active bring on depressive symptoms? To find out, they analyzed the data according to how sedentary the children were, determined by data from activity trackers that the kids wore. It turns out that the amount of time the children spent being sedentary did not predict depression—nor did the presence of depression predict how much exercise a child did.
This suggests that even if a child spends much of the day sitting—whether in school or in front of a computer or television screen—her amount of active time might matter more. “I would say that worrying about the time a child is sedentary might not be the right angle,” says Zahl. “Being active is more beneficial, so the focus should be on getting more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity throughout the day.”
The findings support previous work showing similar benefits of exercise in relieving depression for adults and adolescents, but since this is the first study to look at children so young, Zahl hopes that others will replicate and confirm them. Until then, given that physical activity does so much good for the heart, brain and metabolism, Zahl says that doctors should advise children with depression and their parents to be more active. Physical activity could be an important addition to existing treatments, and the benefits might be especially critical for children at high risk for depression.