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Children who are physically active have lower risk of depression, study finds

Researchers say that roughhousing and running around can benefit children's mental health

Photo (c) V&P Photo Studio - Fotolia
In recent years, there have been several studies which show that getting physical exercise can help counteract the development of depression. However, researchers have predominantly focused on adults and adolescents when conducting trials.

To widen the scope, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and NTNU Social Research have tested how exercise can affect children's mental health. The findings show that allowing children to run around and actively play lowers the risk of depression as well.

"Being active, getting sweaty and roughhousing offer more than just physical health benefits. They also protect against depression," said first author Dr. Tonje Zahl.

Protecting against depression

The researchers analyzed 800 children over a four-year period between the ages of six and ten. At three intervals, children’s physical activity levels were measured with accelerometers. Parents were also interviewed to gauge children’s mental health.

The results showed that physically active six- and eight-year-olds had fewer signs of depression when they were reassessed two years later. The researchers believe this correlation could be important for parents when it comes to encouraging certain hobbies and activities.

"This is important to know, because it may suggest that physical activity can be used to prevent and treat depression already in childhood," said co-author Silje Steinsbekk.

Less active kids may not be depressed

While the study does corroborate past research that extolls the benefits of physical activity, it also differs in some respects. Perhaps most notable is the finding that depressed children tend to also be less active; previous studies on adults had correlated a sedentary lifestyle with depression, but that did not seem to be the case with children.

"We also studied whether children who have symptoms of depression are less physically active over time, but didn't find that to be the case,” said Steinsbekk.

So, what can parents take away from all of this? The researchers say encouraging physical activity is the main thing to keep in mind, but limiting TV and computer time may also be wise.

The full study has been published in Pediatrics.

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