There are plenty of reasons to make sure your kids get tons of exercise: Among others, they’ll enjoy strong muscles and a healthy weight—and you’ll avoid bedtime antics. But now, there’s another incentive: New research published in the online journal Pediatrics shows that engaging in physical activity can prevent depression in kids.
The Canadian analysis of multiple studies involving almost 90,000 healthy kids from ages eight to 19 found that those who were physically active more often—especially those who did vigorous activities, like dancing or playing tag—reported experiencing fewer signs of depression.
Though we don’t often think of mental illness affecting kids, one to two percent of children under the age of 12 and five to eight percent of adolescents will struggle with depression. But getting moving can offer a mental health boost, preventing or delaying depressive symptoms, says one of the study’s authors, Daphne Korczak, a psychiatrist at SickKids hospital and the director of the Children’s Integrated Mood and Body Depression Program.
Even just delaying the onset of depression in kids who might eventually develop it could be important because those who develop the illness earlier in life typically experience more severe problems, says Korczak. “The childhood years are formative,” she says. “Academically, they set kids up for the future, and socially, [they impact] the ability to navigate interpersonal relationships. So if you have a disabling condition that affects you in those years, the outcome of that and the effects on the developing brain may potentially be more significant.”
Interestingly, though kids who were active felt fewer symptoms of depression, getting moving didn’t necessarily prevent kids from eventually being diagnosed with major depressive disorder, something Korczak says could indicate that some children—like those at risk for more severe, syndromal-level depression—might not respond as well to exercise. “Activity is not the only factor,” she notes.
Even if your kid seems like a little ray of sunshine right now, it’s a good idea to get them moving early on, because preventing depression in kids before it begins is key. Canadian guidelines suggest that kids ages five to 17 should be getting 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, but according to the Canadian Paediatric Society, just seven percent of Canadian youth are moving for an hour six or more days a week. And participation in sports is on the decline.
When it comes to getting kids moving, Korczak says the key is to doing activities your kids get excited about. “The most important thing is to find something that’s enjoyable so that the enjoyment becomes associated with the activity and it doesn’t become a chore.”