Exercise may protect against depression, but this study doesn’t show it

Children who get enough exercise aren’t just more physically fit, but also have better mental health in adulthood, according to research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. (But see our analysis below.)

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, established a ‘considerable’ link between physical activity and good mental health.

The researchers say the results could help reduce rising rates of depression in young adults. Depression in teenagers aged 15 and 16 has nearly doubled since the 1980s, according to the charity YoungMinds.

They 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 10 years old. Physical activity was measured with accelerometers, and parents were interviewed about their children’s mental health.

The study’s first author, Tonje Zahl, said: ‘Being active, getting sweaty and roughhousing offer more than just physical health benefits. They also protect against depression.

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

Instant analysis
This study looks at moderate to vigorous physical activity within the context of childhood depression and whether it can predict or ameliorate major depressive illness in children, suggesting that it could be an alternative to medication or therapy.

It sought to achieve this by observing a community sample of 795 children, aged six, in Trondheim, Norway, with follow-up at eight and 10 years of age.

The children were assessed for movement by the usage of accelerometers, which were supposed to be worn consistently for seven-day periods. Data was only used from those accelerometers that showed more than three days of data, and greater than 480 minutes of activity per day. The study did not elaborate greatly on how this affected the data or to what extent the data was skewed or trimmed as a consequence. The incidence of major depressive disorder within the study was noted as being around 0.3 per cent to 0.4 per cent.

Ultimately the study offered very equivocal results, but suggested that moderate to vigorous physical activity was a predictor for lower levels of major depression within two-year intervals. It could be a chicken versus egg scenario — perhaps more movement occurred as the children were less depressed and vice versa.

There were a few problems with this study. Critically, though, it used a sample number of just 700 to assess an incidence of a very rare issue in children: major depression.

A better focus would have been on children with mood or anxiety issues — milder conditions that would benefit from a range of different management options.

I felt the data was shoehorned into a fairly flimsy conclusion that movement predicted depressive disorder in later years. Considering the numbers involved, that is very presumptuous.
RM
Research score: 1/5


  • Jingleballix

    Still……..cannot in any way be a bad thing to get phone-obsessed, junk food eating, PC-cosseted kids off their backsides.

    PE every day would be a good thing.

  • I agree that the study group was too small given the relative rarity of actual depression — however determined or defined — in children (as against the other, more common problems mentioned). But as a matter of practical lessons to be drawn, it seems that ‘chicken or egg’ is not so much a conundrum as a confirmation, since one gives rise to the other. If healthy active children feel better about life and those that enjoy life are healthily active, that indicates that being healthily active should have an enabling effect when it comes to attitude and outlook.

    Perhaps too we focus too much on being rather than becoming: most fitness pros will tell you that the process of reaching for goals is more important than the perfection of having reached them — that it’s better to endeavour and enjoy that endeavour than always be fixated on final results. In short, fitness is a way of life and a state of mind rather than a schedule — and sometimes you have to go through the motions before you can advance to higher attainment. So a depressed or at least unhappy person could ‘go through the motions’ of playing games or learning a sport and then find that as they get better at it, their physical health has genuinely improved along with their mental health.

    The other important fact is that intense activity (unlike, say, a stroll in the park) takes one away from mental wallowing: and learning not to wallow in feeling is one of the most valuable things a person can learn. By releasing children from their problems (for a while), it proves to them that such freedom is possible — and suggests that freedom from distress can be extended in other ways and times.

  • Hermine Funkington-Rumpelstilz

    There is no way around it, even in old age. Not to exercise is a killer.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Nonsense. Exercising is a very depressing activity undertaken by shallow bores.

      • Hermine Funkington-Rumpelstilz

        There’s a play pool for all those who cannot swim. Diversity and H&S legislation demands we cater for everyone.

  • mervin45634

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