Diabetes Forecast

Exercise May Curb Depression

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What to Know

A growing number of young children are being diagnosed with depression, and efforts to prevent and treat their depression have had only modest success. For adolescents and adults, exercise has been shown to ease some symptoms of depression. Researchers sought to determine whether exercise could also aid young children. This study asked two questions: Does physical activity help prevent depression in young children, and does inactivity increase a child’s risk of depression? The researchers also studied the long-term effects of physical activity on symptoms of depression.

The Study

Norwegian researchers recruited 795 children, all age 6. The researchers assessed the kids for signs of depression and other mental health concerns, such as anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, via interviews with their parents. For a week, each of the children wore an activity tracker around their waist to measure how active they were. The researchers then looked for a link between the depression symptoms reported by the parents and the level of activity recorded by the trackers. They evaluated the children again at ages 8 and 10.

The Results

The most physically active children showed the fewest symptoms of depression as they got older, and those results held over the course of the four-year study. The authors don’t know why, but one reason may be that play and sports boost self-esteem, which helps protect against depression. Inactivity did not predict depression in later childhood, although the authors speculate that it may lead to depression in adolescence and adulthood. Finally, symptoms of depression did not appear to influence a child’s activity level.


Regular moderate to vigorous physical activity, like sports and active play, may help prevent or alleviate depression in young children. The study authors advocate boosting children’s activity level to reap such benefits. Although those benefits appear to be small, the researchers conclude, they’re about as effective as other depression treatments, including potentially risky medications, for young children. Larger studies need to be done in order to confirm the results of this study.

Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Symptoms of Major Depression in Middle Childhood.” Tonje Zahl, Silje Steinsbekk, Lars Wichstrøm. Pediatrics, 2017 January; 139(2):e20161711

The information on this screen does not take the place of care from your doctor or other health care provider. If you have general questions about diabetes or diabetes-related research, e-mail askada@diabetes.org or call 1-800-DIABETES (800-342-2382).



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