Exercise has been touted as a natural treatment option for depression lately. But many people with depression know that the relationship between physical activity and mood is complicated.
Exercise can alleviate some depressive symptoms, maybe even prevent symptoms from getting worse in some cases. But other times exercise may not have any effect on depression. And sometimes a person with depression can't even manage to get out of bed during severe episodes, let alone exercise.
A new study draws attention to the fact that exercise may help improve the moods of some teens with and without depression. However, it’s unlikely that exercise is preventing depression from starting in the first place.
The study followed 736 teenagers for three years.
Physical activity was noted over three years using the following measurements: moderate and vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and physical activity energy expenditure (PAEE) during weekdays and weekends.
Both a questionnaire and interview were given at the start and end of the study to determine depressive symptoms.
However, researchers found that there was no long-term association between physical activity and later development of depressive symptoms.
“These results do not support the hypothesis that [physical activity] protects against developing depressive symptoms in adolescence,” according to the study.
The study may be limited due to a smaller participant group, as well as using teens as part of the general population (it’s unclear how many teens actually were diagnosed with depression at the start and end of the study).
Results also depend on the accuracy of self-reporting by teens.
Robin Pedowitz, a medical director at Cigna Corp. and a board certified adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist, said in an email that this study can add to our understanding of how to treat and prevent depression in teens.
Although nothing can truly prevent depression, it can certainly be managed.
“The study seems to indicate that exercise may not be a protective factor by itself with regard to adolescent depression, but it could work in tandem with other factors to help teens to manage depression,” she said.
Even if exercise doesn’t help prevent depression, it certainly helps maintain overall good health.
“For a teenager, it can also enhance a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem in addition to increasing positive social interactions by participating in group sports,” Pedowitz said.
For teens who still suffer from depression regardless of how active they are, a school counselor (or another trusted adult) may be the first line of defense. Talk therapy, family counseling and in some cases medication are necessary as well, she added.
Kristen Martinez, a counselor, licensed mental health counselor associate and national certified counselor at Pacific Northwell, said in an email that it’s important to remember that this is only one study, and more studies are needed in this area before drawing major conclusions about the role of exercise role in depression.
She added that the results could be explained by chemical imbalances in the brains of people with depression.
“Normally, exercise gives people a type of euphoria, a ‘high,’ while they are engaging in it or afterwards,” Martinez said. “In people who may be prone to depression, exercise just may not give that same type of euphoric feeling in the brain.”
Jennifer Schmid, a holistic nurse and natural wellness educator, said in an email that she is not surprised by the study results, because exercise is only one aspect of a preventative health program.
She believes that more often depression is associated with poor diet (high in processed foods and sugar), poor sleep and stress. A standard American diet may not be nutritious enough, and some teens could be deficient in various nutrients.
“Likewise, pressures at home and school can lead to stress and lack of sleep, especially for teens who are up late doing homework and/or over-programmed with sports and other activities during the day,” Schmid added.
Toseeb, Umar and Brage, Soren, et al. JAMA Pediatrics. Exercise and Depressive Symptoms in Adolescents: A Longitudinal Cohort Study. Web. October 15, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.1794.
Medical Xpress. No association seen between physical activity, depressive symptoms in adolescents. Web. October 15, 2014.
Pedowitz, Robin. Email interview. October 15, 2014.
Martinez, Kristen. Email interview. October 15, 2014.
Schmid, Jennifer. Email interview. October 15, 2014.
Reviewed October 17, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN