Working up a sweat with sports, games and exercise could protect children aged six to eight from developing depression symptoms during childhood, researchers in Norway have found.
Several studies have previously identified the protective effect of exercise against depression in teenagers and adults. However, until now, no research had studied the effect in children.
Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) have, for the first time, linked moderate to vigorous physical activity in children aged six to eight to a lower risk of developing depression symptoms during childhood.
Moderate to vigorous exercise is defined as a level of activity that leaves children sweaty and out of breath.
The researchers studied more than 800 children aged six, and continued to analyze data from 700 of these children at age eight, then age 10.
They used accelerometers to monitor levels of physical activity. These sensors are like advanced pedometers that can track the speed and movement of objects or people. Parents also answered questions about their child's mental health.
The scientists found that children who were physically active at age six to eight showed fewer symptoms of depression two years later. "This is important to know, because it may suggest that physical activity can be used to prevent and treat depression already in childhood," says Silje Steinsbekk, associate professor in NTNU's Department of Psychology.
The researchers also investigated whether children with depression symptoms were less physically active over time, but this did not appear to be the case.
The findings, published in the February 2017 issue of Pediatrics, must now be tested in randomized studies in which scientists will increase children's physical activity then compare levels of depression symptoms with those of children not following the same program, the researchers explain.
However, sedentary lifestyles in children were not found to affect the risk of developing depression symptoms later in life, note the authors in conclusion to the study. Similarly, depression symptoms did not lead to greater inactivity.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that children aged five to 17 get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day from activities such as sports, games and moving around.
The study is available here.