It’s a sad truth that kids and teens suffer from depression just like adults. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, depression affects approximately 5% of individuals under the age of 17. But, studies have shown that regular exercise can help alleviate depression and even prevent it from returning.
Warding off Depression
In a recent article in The Psychiatric Times, a study of six year olds in a community in Norway followed the kids over a four-year time period. At the six, eight, and 10 year marks, the scholars conducted clinical interviews of the parents and children, assessing for depression, and tracked physical activity with accelerometers over seven days.
The results were striking.
“Higher levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity at age 6 predicted fewer major depressive symptoms 2 years later,” the 2019 article stated. “Similarly, moderate to vigorous physical activity at age 8 predicted fewer major depressive symptoms 2 years later. There was no association between sedentary behavior and depression. On the basis of these findings, the investigators concluded that increasing moderate to vigorous physical activity in children may prevent future symptoms of depression.”
Another study cited in the article addressed depression, exercise, and teens. The teens participated in 12 one hour sessions of circuit training. Again, the emotional gains from regular exercise were profound.
“The perceived changes reported by the adolescents were improved sleep; increase in energy; improved motivation to engage with peers, family, and school activities; improved mood; improvement in self-efficacy; better social interactions; and a more positive attitude toward exercise.In light of these findings, clinicians may want to add exercise to the treatment armamentarium for depressed youth,” the study concluded.
Exercise for Depression Might Be Even More Vital for Girls
While both genders garner natural antidepressant benefits from regular exercise, it might be even more important for girls. In a January 2019 study entitled The influence of depression status on weekly exercise in children ages 6 to 17 years in Preventive Medicine Reports, the authors found that “…This study indicates a significant difference in daily exercise habits between currently depressed children age 12 to 17 and females compared to their never depressed counterparts. Healthcare workers should be aware of the possible heightened risk of physical inactivity for depressed female children and children age 12 to 17.”
It went on to quite strongly sound the alarm on behalf of girls:
“In the meantime, healthcare workers should educate currently-depressed female and adolescent children and their parents of the increased risk for inadequate exercise. Interventions tailored to female children and adolescents, including school-based interventions, should be implemented or maintained to mitigate depressive symptoms and keep depressed children physically active until interventions tailored to the currently depressed among this population can be developed.”
How Do You Get Your Kids Moving?
There is no one size fits all program for getting your kids to exercise; there isn’t one for adults, either. However, there are some guidelines that might help your kids get the message, and the results.
Whatever you do, don’t push a teen too hard, therapist Sherry Nafeh advises.
“Tell a teenager to exercise while they’re playing video games or surfing social media and they’ll either fight you or simply ignore the suggestion,” Nafeh told Parentology.
Sometimes the best advice comes from the kids themselves. One of the best results of the above-mentioned teen circuit training study was the feedback from 26 of the teens who benefited. They mentioned things like the importance of having a choice in terms of how hard or moderately they worked, having a consistent routine in their lives, using exercise as a distraction from their everyday lives, and just feeling healthier overall.
Another, perhaps larger takeaway: having a shared experience by participating in exercise with other kids who have similar issues.
How do you convince them to move? Los Angeles-based personal trainer and former public school P.E. teacher Christina Melchor learned a thing or two about kids and exercise.
“What I found while working with kids is they don’t usually love sitting and learning, but they do love having fun,” Melchor tells Parentology. “The days where I made the warm-up into a silly game are the days where I had the children’s attention.”
An example Melchor gives, “Leading them through a dynamic warm-up could look boring to an adult — torso rotations, high knees, squats, etc. — but when I started naming them differently, I had better interactions. We called the high knee movement “soldier march” and counted in an army fashion when doing those. We called squats “froggys” and did more of a jump squat instead of the standard squat and made a “ribbet” noise (this actually sometimes got too loud because of the excitement the ribbet noises created). The warm-up was actually my favorite part of teaching because it usually ended in laughter.”
For Some, Try a Team
Feeling like a part of a larger unit can be very reassuring and comforting for kids. That’s why finding a team sport, either at school or as an extracurricular, can be a godsend.
“When teenagers play sports, they’re unaware of all the physical and mental health benefits,” Nafeh says. “I believe parents can encourage teenagers to move more by encouraging them to join team sports.”
Nafeh’s reasoning: “Team sports promotes higher self- esteem and leadership skills, while teamwork fosters healthy relationships. Teenagers also become better at communicating and more self sufficient in getting their needs met, which fosters a healthy mindset ( mental health) and makes it less likely for them to experience depression or anxiety.“
Teams Too Intense? Try a Class or a Goal
Some kids might not gravitate toward the intensity of a team dynamic. For them, there’s classes in things like gymnastics, circus arts, yoga, parkour, and even boxing.
You can also get them outdoors. Try hiking on local trails with them, taking them surfing, or biking in your neighborhood. If your kid likes walking, get a dog, which is a built in reason to walk each and every day.
And if your child needs a goal, consider entering her in something she needs to train towards, like a charity run or even a short triathlon.
In the end, though, movement should be joyful, because that joy is what drives away depression.
“If you make exercising into a game, a competition, assuming this child is competitive, or just FUN, they’ll most likely respond in a positive way,’ Melchor says. “Not once did I make class about losing weight or looking better, it was always about being able to move your body better.”
The Psychiatric Times
Preventive Medicine Reports
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry