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Physical Activity May Protect Against Childhood Depression

Moderate to vigorous physical activity lowers the risk of childhood depression.

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Source: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

A first of its kind study has identified that 6 to 10-year-old children can reap significant mental health benefits via regular moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA). The new study, “Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Symptoms of Major Depression in Middle Childhood,” was published today in the February 2017 issue of Pediatrics.

Previous studies on adults and adolescents have correlated regular MVPA with a lower risk of developing depression. However, the new study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Institute of Psychology is the first to identify the effect of higher moderate to vigorous physical activity levels on lowering symptoms of major depression in children between the age of 6 and 10.

The goal of the study was to determine whether there are reciprocal relationships between moderate to vigorous physical activity and sedentary behavior regarding major depressive disorders in middle childhood. When describing the parameters of MVPA, the researchers said, “We're talking about moderate to vigorous physical activity that leaves kids sweaty or out of breath.”

Breaking a Sweat May Help Combat Depression Beginning in Middle Childhood

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At the beginning of this study, the researchers recruited a community sample of 795 children living in Trondheim, Norway when they were 6-years-old. Two years later, they followed up with the children when the kids were 8-years-old. Another two years later, the researchers surveyed the group (which had dwindled to about 700 participants) when the children were 10-years-old.

At various points throughout this four year study, physical activity levels were recorded using accelerometry. Symptoms of major depression were measured through clinical interviews with both parents and children.

The researchers conclude that higher levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity predicted fewer symptoms of major depression throughout middle childhood. Additionally, they believe that increasing MVPA may serve as a complementary method to prevent and treat childhood depression.

Although previous studies have identified a link between depressive disorders and sedentary lifestyles in adolescents and adults; excessive sedentary behavior was not directly correlated with depression in children between the ages of 6 and 10, according to this study.

That being said, across the board, 6 to 10-year-old children who were more physically active displayed fewer symptoms of depression throughout the four year study. The researchers hypothesize that physical activity may serve as a type of prophylaxis that reduces the risk of someone developing a major depressive disorder, beginning as early as middle childhood.

In a statement to NTNU's Department of Psychology, the researchers sum up their findings:

"Being active, getting sweaty, and roughhousing offer more than just physical health benefits for young children. Physical activity also protects against depression.

So the message to parents and health professionals is: Facilitate physical activity, which means that children get a little sweaty and breathless. Try a bike ride or outdoor play. Limiting children's TV or iPad screen time is not enough. Children need actual increased physical activity."

Future research by the Norwegian team at NTNU is slated to involve randomized studies in which the researchers will prescribe specific doses of moderate to vigorous physical activity and closely examine the dose-response to various quantities and intensities of aerobic activity as related to symptoms of depression in children. Stay tuned for updates on this research.

Timeless Insights on the Benefits of Childhood Exercise from Louisa May Alcott

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Source: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

As I was reading and writing about the latest Norwegian study on childhood MVPA and depression this morning, I couldn't get the words of Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) out of my head. Alcott has famously described the ecstatic "Transcendentalist" bliss she experienced as a child and adolescent running long distances through the woods near Walden Pond or chasing a hoop around Boston Common in the mid-19th century.

Alcott had a profound connection to running that seemed deeply embedded in her psyche and soul. She uses infectious prose to describe the effusive joy she derived from moderate to vigorous physical activity that is contagious. Ever since I was 17, reading the passage below never fails to make me want to lace up my sneakers, pretend I'm a horse or a deer, and go for a run. Louisa May Alcott once said:

"Active exercise was my delight from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop around the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening. I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run.

No boy could be my friend until I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy . . . My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild."

Long before 21st-century research studies, Alcott’s mother, Abby May, understood the importance of physical activity and "running wild" as being key to the healthy development of a child's body, mind, and spirit.

As the latest Norwegian research suggests, modern day parents (myself included) would be wise to facilitate lifestyle choices that allow our children to live more like Louisa May Alcott by: Unplugging from their digital devices, running wild, roughhousing, and breaking a sweat more often.


Tonje Zahl, Silje Steinsbekk, Lars Wichstrøm. Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Symptoms of Major Depression in Middle Childhood. Pediatrics, 2017; e20161711 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-1711