It has been previously shown that physically active adults and young people have a lower risk of developing depression. Now a new study shows that children also receive that beneficial effect from being active.

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and NTNU Social Research examined just under 800 children when they were six years old, 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.

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.

Physical Activity Important

Silje Steinsbekk, associate professor in NTNU’s Department of Psychology, said:

“This is important to know, because it may suggest that physical activity can be used to prevent and treat depression already in childhood."

Steinsbekk cautions that these results should now be tested in randomized studies where researchers increase children’s physical activity and examine whether those who participate in these measures have fewer 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.

Sedentary Lifestyles

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.

So the message to parents and health professionals is: Facilitate physical activity, which means 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 moderate to vigorous physical activity that leaves them sweaty or out of breath.

Tonje Zahl et al Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Symptoms of Major Depression in Middle Childhood Pediatrics (2017). DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-1711

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