Exercise as a component of treatment for depression
Can exercise help adolescents who have depression?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have probably heard discussion of depression among adolescents over the last few years. There are individual studies (e.g., Liu et al., 2022) showing, for example, increases in adolescent depression after the onset of the pandemic for both boys and girls, but the effects appeared earlier and were more pronounced for girls. And there are integrated reviews showing increases of greater than 25% in the symptoms of depression from longitudinal samples in the US, Netherlands, and Peru (Barendse et al., 2022).
Because depression during adolescence may predict depression two decades later in life (see, e.g., Steiger et al., 2014), many researchers are interested in what can be done to help youths with problems of depression. Two common selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), often called “anti-depressants,” have been used with adults and tested in adolescents, but their effectiveness has not been clearly established.
In the January 2023 issue of the journal JAMA Pediatrics, Recchia et al. (2023) presented an analysis of 21 studies (2441 participants) to examine whether physical activity interventions have promise as a treatment or supplement to clinical treatment of depression in adolescents. Here is their summary of the key points from their literature review.
Question Can physical activity interventions alleviate depressive symptoms in children and adolescents?
Findings This systematic review and meta-analysis included 21 studies involving 2441 participants. The results indicate that physical activity interventions were associated with significant reductions in depressive symptoms compared with the control condition.
Meaning The available evidence supports physical activity interventions as an alternative or adjunctive approach to alleviate depressive symptoms in children and adolescents, substantiating the beneficial influence of physical activity on the mental health of pediatric populations.
For special educators and parents, these results should provide a base for building and maintaining an exercise regimen for adolescents, regardless of whether they have depression. Given other known benefits of regular exercise (e.g., weight control), the effects on depression add one more reason to help kids develop life-long fitness habits.
For more about this topic, see Bustamate et al. (2023).
Barendse, M. E., Flannery, J., Cavanagh, C., Aristizabal, M., Becker, S. P., Berger, E., Breaux, R., Campione-Barr, N., Church, J. A., Crone, E. A., Dahl, R. E., Dennis-Twiary, T. A. Dvorsky, M. R., Dziura, S. L., van de Groep, S., Ho, T. C., Killoren, S. E., Langberg, J. M. ... Pfeifer, J. H. (2022). Longitudinal change in adolescent depression and anxiety symptoms from before to during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Journal of Research on Adolescence. https://doi.org/10.1111/jora.12781
Bernaras, E., Jaureguizar, J., & Garaigordobil, M. (2019). Child and adolescent depression: A review of theories, evaluation instruments, prevention programs, and treatments. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 543.
Bustamante, E. E., Santiago-Rodríguez, M. E., & Ramer, J. D. (2023). Unlocking the Promise of Physical Activity for Mental Health Promotion. JAMA Pediatrics. http://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5096
Liu, S. R., Davis, E. P., Palma, A. M., Sandman, C. A., & Glynn, L. M. (2022). The acute and persisting impact of COVID-19 on trajectories of adolescent depression: Sex differences and social connectedness. Journal of Affective Disorders, 299, 246-255. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2021.11.030
Bowman, M. A., & Daws, L. C. (2019). Targeting serotonin transporters in the treatment of juvenile and adolescent depression. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13, 156. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2019.00156
Recchia, F., Bernal, J. D., Fong, D. Y., Wong, S. H., Chung, P. K., Chan, D. K. C.,Capio C. M., Yu, C. C. W.,Wong, S. W. S., Sit, C. H. P., Chen, Y-J., Thompson, W. R., & Siu, P. M. (2023). Physical Activity interventions to alleviate depressive symptoms in children and adolescents: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics. http://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5090
Steiger, A. E., Allemand, M., Robins, R. W., & Fend, H. A. (2014). Low and decreasing self-esteem during adolescence predict adult depression two decades later. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 325–338. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035133
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