Exercise: The Key to Combatting Depression in Children

I have been writing for several years about the benefits of exercise and how exercise, when developed as a life skill when a person is young, can provide lifelong benefits. We know the benefits of exercise as they relate to combatting disease, managing weight, stabilizing mood, boosting energy, and helping people get good quality sleep. The need for exercise is more important than ever now that people are striving to include their mental wellness as part of a healthy lifestyle.

The onset of COVID-19 and subsequent shutdowns pushed many into a state of social isolation. Children and adolescents were especially impacted, and we are seeing an increase in mental health problems among young people. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, depression is the second-most prevalent mental illness among children and adolescents.

While past research has indicated that exercise can improve and even alleviate symptoms of depression in adults, there has been little research centered on whether exercise impacts the mental health of children and adolescents. A breakthrough study released by international researchers in JAMA Pediatrics this week supports the idea that moderate physical exercise does in fact help decrease depressive symptoms in children, especially those age 13 and older who participate in activities such as team sports and aerobics, including running and jumping, for an average of 50 minutes three times a week over the course of 12 weeks or less.

Exercise can be fun and engaging, and helping children discover the physical activities that they enjoy most can increase the chances that they will continue to keep moving. Although a challenge for some, team sports allow children the opportunity to socialize and develop strong bonds with their peers, which helps foster feelings of belonging.  

While additional research is still needed to further support the benefits of exercise in children and adolescents, this study shows that exercise, along with a well-balanced lifestyle and support from a network of family, friends, and caregivers, can help young people combat depression naturally and exhibit resilience during some of life’s most challenging times.

On a personal note, Ryan started running at a very young age. You can see him participating at the Charlie Barber Children’s Run at age 2. Yes, he really started running when he was 1. There was a children’s mini marathon at the Peninsula when he was 9 and that got him off to a good start. He participated in the McDowell Cross Country with assistance and support from the coach. When we joined LECOM, you could find him on the treadmill every day.         

Today, we are at Planet Fitness for a 60-minute workout on the treadmill. Exercise is a regular part of his life and I feel that because he had an early start, he views it as a “daily” activity. I have always believed that running helps decrease his repetitive behaviors and reduces some of his anxiety. I can’t imagine a day for him without exercise!

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