Exercise May Help Reduce Depression in Teens

New research shows that exercise reduces symptoms of depression.

Posted Jan 22, 2018

Depression is a serious mental health condition that has been connected with suicidal behaviors among adults and youth. Symptoms of depression may include: sadness, feeling hopeless, loss of interest in hobbies, decreased energy, and thoughts of death or suicide (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HHS; 2015). In a study published in the December 2017 issue of Evidence-Based Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, the authors report that exercise may help reduce depression symptoms among adolescents. This study sought to explore how exercise could potentially be an alternative treatment to medication and therapy.

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Depression and Treatment

No matter how severe the problems associated with depression, it can be treated. Most individuals can benefit from a number of treatment options such as antidepressant medications, psychotherapy (or talk therapy), or a combination of both (HHS, 2015). One of the challenges of seeking treatment for adolescents is that services often have to be initiated by their parents or caregiver. Adolescence is a period often characterized by isolation and mood irritability, therefore many parents may attribute mood changes to typical behaviors. When adolescents exhibit extreme mood changes or express being “depressed” it is important to take these concerns seriously and at a minimum seek mental health consultation or evaluation.

Medications and therapy have both been found to have moderate reductions in depressive symptoms, but relapse is high following treatment (Radovic, Melvin, & Gordon, 2017). Studies have provided some promising evidence to support the use of exercise as a treatment option. For example, Radovic and her co-authors note that exercise as part of inpatient treatment or group interventions with treatment staff support have found reductions in depression symptoms at the end of treatment with an exercise component.

The new study published by researchers in Australia conducted a 4-week exercise intervention tailored to the needs of ten adolescents who were diagnosed with major depression. In general, the study found some support for the use of exercise. The downside to the exercise intervention was that it required self-motivation. According to the authors, (Radovic et al., 2017) “adolescents with depression may need increased support to maintain motivation for exercise engagement over time”.

Adolescents that participated in the study reported that the following strategies may be helpful to improve the use of exercise interventions: having scheduled sessions [with a provider] to increase motivation, doing exercise in pairs, and increasing the use of exercises such as boxing. Although some benefits of exercise were noted in the study, some limitations should be highlighted. Specifically, the study only included a small number of adolescents as participants and depression scores were lower but still above the clinical level of symptoms.

Additional Tips for Promoting Emotional Health

As noted in the study, there is some benefit to exercise. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), many therapists and mental health professionals recommend exercise as part of treatment. Below are some suggestions from the APA to help reduce depression and incorporate exercise:

  1. Before starting to use exercise, it is important to meet with your doctor or medical provider to review your health. Once you have been given the “okay” to exercise, start with small goals.
  2. Avoid sudden high-intensity exercise. Begin exercise programs gradually and set reasonable goals.
  3. Research shows that different types of exercise may be helpful. This may include walking, running, or swimming. For some people, yoga and weight lifting help them feel emotionally and physically strengthened.  
  4. Exercise may be an opportunity to increase contact with other people, especially if depression has resulted in decreased connection with others. Many people find that they can stick to their exercise plan if they work out with a friend who has similar goals.
  5. Pay attention even to minor changes in your mood to evaluate what form of exercise or exercise intensity is most helpful to you.

Copyright 2018 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D. 


Radovic, S., Melvin, G. A., & Gordon, M. S. (2017). Exercise as an Adjunct in the Treatment of Adolescent Depression. Evidence-Based Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 4(3-4), 139-149. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. (2015). Depression (NIH Publication No. 15-3561). Bethesda, MD: U.S. Government Printing Office.