A study presented at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention found that sixth-grade girls who were physically fit were less likely to suffer from depression when they reached seventh grade. Taking into consideration existing symptoms of depression and weight, girls who performed better on a cardio-respiratory fitness test were still less likely to be experiencing depression when they were surveyed in seventh grade. There was the same effect on boys, but in smaller numbers.
The study surveyed 437 students, 55% of whom were girls. Twenty-eight percent of girls in sixth grade and 29% in seventh had elevated symptoms of depression. In the same study, 22% boys had an elevation of symptoms of depression in seventh grade and 19% in eighth grade. For both boys and girls, the strongest predictor for depression in seventh grade was the presence of depression in sixth grade. After controlling for this, researchers discovered that fitness was an important factor in lowering depression by the next year.
The subjects attended six middle schools in a metropolitan county in North Texas and were questioned as part of the county-wide program to assess physical fitness, about depression and fitness. The findings were presented by Camilo Ruggero, PhD, assistant professor at the University of North Texas.
Along with the questioning, the students were tested physically by completing a fitness procedure comprised of short bursts of speed, known as a shuttle run test. The students were also weighed.
“A student’s physical activity level may change from week to week, whereas fitness is a result of more prolonged physical activity,” Ruggero said. “Assessing the students’ body mass index, how well they performed on a shuttle-run test and their own feelings of personal fitness helps to give us a more complete picture of each student’s fitness level.”
After researchers controlled for the fact that depression was more likely if a child has had depression the previous year, fitness remained a significant factor in lessening a student’s depression the following year.
“Depression that begins at this time can lead to chronic or recurring depression in later years,” he said. “Fitness programs are one way to help prevent depression in middle schoolers, but schools should also use other interventions, such as one-on-one or group therapy, that more directly address symptom treatment among depressed adolescents.”
In an article for website WebMD, Tara Haelle writes that along with other strategies, like school-based or family therapy and improved fitness may account for an overall sense of wellness and lifted mood, according to Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of development and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York.
“Parents and clinicians have to remember that just because there’s an association and one preceded the other doesn’t mean we can assume there is a causal relationship,” Adesman said. “We cannot be sure that improvements in fitness will unequivocally lead to improved mental health based on this study.”
The reasons that a middle school student might be depressed are many. Some of the risk factors are:
• poor support from family or friends
• body image issues
• negative thought patterns
• poor coping skills
• difficult life events
None of these factors mean that a child will be depressed, but these things can increase the risk of depression. Both Ruggero and Adesman agree that fitness offers other advantages such as a healthier weight, lowered risk for heart disease, and, some studies show that fitness leads to better academic performance.
Ruggero said that they have tried to pinpoint exactly why there is a correlation between a child’s fitness level and depression. He does say that he has some theories, writes Rhodi Lee for website TechTimes.
“It might be better self-esteem, healthier weight or getting more positive reinforcements that go along with being active, and/or it could be more biological,” Ruggero said. “We know certain proteins and hormones associated with less depression respond to increased exercise.”