The benefits of physical activity may be greater for children and adolescents with clinical depression or depressive symptoms, who may develop anxiety and other disorders in adulthood.
Physical activity interventions can reduce the symptoms of depression in children and adolescents, according to findings published in JAMA Open Network. This intervention may positively impact the biology, psychology, and psychosocial behavior of younger individuals.
Although researchers are not clear as to why physical activity has antidepressant effects, one hypothesis suggests that physical activity can increase the bioavailability of brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which works to reduce the symptoms of depression.
“Physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, is suitable for children…[and] increased levels of physical activity can improve executive function, which is greatly impaired in youth with depression,” the study authors wrote.
Associated with social dysfunction, poor mental health, poor physical health, and suicide, these early childhood depressive symptoms can also predict mental disorders as an adult—as much as 67% of these children could develop full-syndrome depressive or anxiety disorders as adults.
Two independent researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 21 different studies, which included 2441 participants with an average age of 14 years. Researchers aimed to learn more about the association between physical activity and depressive symptoms in children and adolescents.
The meta-analysis also looked to examine participant and trial-related characteristics that moderate effective treatment. The primary outcome was depressive symptoms measured at the end of the intervention period and the last follow-up using validated depression rating scales.
The researchers observed a reduction in depression symptoms with physical activity interventions. The results showed that adolescents aged 13 years and older benefitted more from physical activity, but “increasing amounts of physical activity may not translate into greater reductions in depressive symptoms,” the study authors wrote. “Three physical activity sessions per week and interventions that were shorter than 12 weeks induced greater benefits on depressive symptoms compared with other frequencies and durations.”
Many of the studies conducted their interventions in the school setting, and the meta-analysis consequently recognizes possible benefits of structured physical education programs in primary and secondary schools.
Although there appears to be a link between physical activity and depression, its effects might enhance the effects of antidepressants; however, there is not enough evidence to support this claim.
The study does include some limitations, one of which is that researchers did not screen for study quality. Additionally, the researchers did not use the most rigorous reporting of the study design and characteristics, nor were they able to control confounding variables.
Pediatric depression is only adequately diagnosed at 50%, and data show that 80% of children and adolescents may not receive appropriate medical care. Nearly 90% of these children and adolescents will develop comorbid psychiatric conditions into adulthood.
“More research is warranted to explain whether and how these mechanisms moderate the effect of physical activity and whether these changes are also present in younger populations,” the authors wrote.
Recchia, Francesco, Bernal, Joshua, Fong, Daniel, et al. Physical Activity Interventions to Alleviate Depressive Symptoms in Children and Adolescents. JAMA Pediatr. Published online January 3, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5090