Does your child seem depressed? Exercise can help

March 2, 2017 Neeta Tyagi-Jain, MD FAAP


Does physical activity help children and young adults fight depression? A study from Norway says, yes. And think about it: Before iPads, smartphones and hours in front of the television; before the demise of playing outside with friends, riding bikes around the neighborhood and climbing trees; before sweaty, dirty clothes were no longer unusual, did we see significant depression in children?

The Norwegian study, published in February in the journal Pediatrics, says the rate of depression in children and young adults is almost 5 percent.

Let’s talk about depression and what it means to children whose minds are still developing. Children who are depressed might not even understand how they’re feeling. Some may be labeled difficult, defiant, uncontrollable, solitary, aggressive or even scary.

Screen time versus physical activity

I see many of these children in my office because of concerns that they can’t focus, they’re anxious or they behave badly and are in dire need of being fixed! When I sit down and talk with them, their thoughts reflect the sadness inside them. 

These children spend most of their time indoors on computers, phones and iPads. In contrast, the children I see who are involved in activities that require moderate to vigorous exercise aren’t as sad or depressed. 

Mood and exercise

I started reading about the connection between mood and exercise and, as I explored the topic, I came across this memory from the author Louisa May Alcott: “My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support my lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild.”

The Norwegian study, done by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, followed about 795 children over four years. They found that the children who engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity – defined as exercising to the point of breaking a sweat and breathing heavily – were less likely to become depressed than children who were sedentary.

Better sleep, self-esteem and social skills

A 2013 study in the journal Sports Medicine found similar results. Researchers reviewed nine earlier studies involving children and teens aged 5 to 19 and found that physical activity had a “small significant overall effect” on depression.

So how can exercise help cut the risk of depression? There are several ways:
  • Our bodies release endorphins during moderate to vigorous exercise. These hormones give us a sense of happiness.
  • Exercise tires us out, so we sleep better. And, a rested body works better – mentally, physically and immunologically.
  • Many children involved in team sports forge friendships, and a sense of belonging, accountability and responsibility. All of this promotes well-being.
  • Many families bond during sports events and physical activity.
  • Moderate to vigorous exercise boosts self-esteem because children feel fit and good about themselves.
  • Exercise keeps children away from screens and helps them develop social skills and interact better with others.

Obstacles to exercise

While physical activity isn’t a cure for depression, it can help ease various symptoms. It isn’t always easy for some children to get the exercise they need.

Some cities have few safe parks or other areas where kids can run and play.  Due to unsafe neighborhoods, many children stay inside their homes. Schools in general have fewer recesses than they used to. This means children have less time to play outside and instead are stuck in the classroom. This can heighten sadness, stress, anxiety and depression. Many children can’t be KIDS anymore.

More time to play

So let me describe a better education model, a system where:
  • Children get three recesses a day
  • The school day is about an hour shorter, allowing kids to finish  homework and still have time to play
  • Classrooms are virtually free of technology
  • Teachers don’t have computers or grade assignments in class, freeing them to spend more time working directly with their students

This is the Norwegian school system. Students do have problems, but less so than in the United States.

All of us who work with children need to do more to get them involved in activities that require moderate to vigorous exercise. Let’s make sure kids can be kids, with more time to play and run around.

If you’re concerned that your child might be depressed, talk to his or her doctor about physical activities and other ways to help. To schedule an appointment with a provider in Swedish Pediatrics and Primary Care, call 1-800-793-3474.

With busy schedules, work and school, how do you make sure your child gets exercise? Share your story by adding a comment below.

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