Study: Physical Activity Reduces Depressive Symptoms in Children and Adolescents
Physical activity benefits pediatric populations diagnosed with depression and comorbidities including ADHD, according to a recent systematic review and meta-analysis.
January 22, 2023
Physical activity can significantly reduce depressive symptoms in children and adolescents, according to a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics. 1
The meta-analysis of 21 studies involving 2,441 participants (47% boys and 53% girls) between the ages of 11-19 found that physical activity may help alleviate depressive symptoms in young patients. Twelve of the studies also demonstrated the benefits of physical activity for participants with a somatic or psychiatric disorder such as depression, obesity, ADHD, and diabetes.
The findings revealed that physically active teenagers experienced more notable reductions in depressive symptoms than did younger participants. “It is possible that younger children are sufficiently active to be desensitized to additional physical activity, whereas their older and more sedentary counterparts might be more responsive to the intervention,” researchers said.
After analyzing the frequency and duration of physical activity, researchers determined that engaging in three sessions of physical activity lasting at least 30 minutes yielded the greatest improvement in depressive symptoms.
“Depression is the second most prevalent mental disorder among children and adolescents, yet only a small proportion seeks or receives disorder-specific treatment,” researchers said. “Physical activity interventions hold promise as an alternative or adjunctive approach to clinical treatment for depression.” 2
Benefits of Physical Activity for Comorbid Conditions
This finding echoes that of a 2017 ADDitude survey, which found that 37% of children with ADHD manage their symptoms with daily exercise. Roughly half of the respondents rated exercise as an “extremely” or “very” effective treatment — the highest rating of any ADHD treatment included in the survey.
“Any aerobic activity, especially outdoors, helps our daughter,” said one ADDitude reader recently surveyed on the impact of exercise. “Within a day or two of not doing anything, she gets depressed.”
“We see great improvements in our son after physical activity,” said another parent. “The depression can really take hold, even though he is only 10. We homeschool, so our son and I both have YMCA memberships and attend at least three times per week. He enjoys the elliptical, rower, spin bikes, automatic stepper, and treadmill.”
Most ADDitude reader panelists called exercise an effective form of treatment, but many said that inducing their children to participate in physical activity is challenging.
“My teenage daughter has depressive symptoms, and we see her mood improve when she is active, but it took her a long time to start exercising,” said one parent. “She used to play tennis and soccer and ski, but when she went to college, she stopped exercising.”
Physical activities must be regular and consistent to maintain their mental-health benefits, according to ADDitude readers. “In just a few short months, I see the absence of physical activity in his life magnifying all his depressive symptoms,” one parent said.
“I see an improvement in her behavior with more physical activity, but I could not say I’ve noticed any direct correlation with her mood,” said another parent. “However, I notice that her mood and behavior deteriorate when she’s less active or getting too much screen time. She does martial arts once a week and seasonally participates in soccer or t-ball. We’re adding family yoga in a few weeks.”
“My son always does better when he moves but, unfortunately, it is very difficult to get him going,” wrote another parent. “I notice after shooting hoops he is much calmer and in a better mood, so I try to encourage him to get out and do it.”
However, exercise is not a universal cure. Of ADDitude survey respondents, 5% found exercise “not very” or “not at all affective” in addressing ADHD symptoms.
“Physical activity does not have a sustained effect on his depression or intense feelings,” said one ADDitude reader panelist. Said another, “The positive results of physical activity last as long as the activity occurs, then fade fast.”
One parent explained that physical activity negatively impacted her child’s symptoms. “Physical activity does not help her — it actually makes it worse. She needs more mental activities to help her, such as puzzles, card games, or workbooks. Those are things that help regulate and reduce her symptoms.”
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1Recchia F., Bernal J.D.K., Fong D.Y., et al. (2023). Physical Activity Interventions to Alleviate Depressive Symptoms in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. https//doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5090
2Erskine H.E., Baxter A.J., Patton G., et al. (2017 ). The Global Coverage of Prevalence Data for Mental Disorders in Children and Adolescents. Epidemiol Psychiatr Sci. 26(4):395-402. https://doi.org/10.1017/S2045796015001158
3Angold, A., Costello, E.J. (1993). Depressive Comorbidity in Children and Adolescents: Empirical, Theoretical, and Methodological Issues. Am J Psychiatry. 150(12):1779-1791. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.150.12.1779
4Birmaher, B., Brent, D., Bernet, W., et al. (2007). AACAP Work Group on Quality Issues. Practice Parameter for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents with Depressive Disorders. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 46(11):1503-1526. https://doi.org/10.1097/chi.0b013e318145ae1