Physically active youngsters are less depressed

The vast majority of young people between the ages of 11 and 14 are doing well for the most part. Some, however, struggle with mental health problems, and physical activity could be part of the solution for them.

“Children and teens who do sports have fewer depressive symptoms than those who only participate in cultural activities,” says Else Marie Lysfjord, who recently received her doctorate and is affiliated with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU)Department of Psychology.

Depression occurs in children as young as age 11. Questionnaire results show that physical activity and exercise are strongly related to lower risk of depressive symptoms. Girls appear to fare worse than boys.

Girls especially vulnerable

Girls in particular are prone to depression, according to Lysfjord’s recent article, which is based on her doctoral dissertation. Her research compiles the results of three studies.

“Twice as many girls as boys report depressive symptoms already as 11-year-olds,” says Lysfjord, who is an assistant professor at Nord University.

Not only do girls more often have depressive symptoms, but their ailments often last longer as well.

“Three times as many girls as boys at this age report persistent symptoms over the course of a year,” Lysfjord says.

Worst for girls who only choose cultural activities

Youth who engage in both sports and other cultural activities have the lowest degree of depressive symptoms. In this group, about 15 per cent of girls and 7 per cent of boys have numerous symptoms of depression.

Girls who participate exclusively in cultural activities have the greatest number of depressive symptoms at almost 26 per cent, compared to more than 21 per cent for boys.

Young people who don’t participate either in sports or other cultural activities end up in the middle.

What we can do

“In order to prevent depressive disorders among children and adolescents, girls in particular should be prioritized,” says Lysfjord.

The study results also indicate that depression prevention work should promote physical activity and exercise among children and adolescents.

“Children and teens need trusted adults present in their leisure activities to provide support to youth who are vulnerable,” Lysfjord says.

Children and adolescents need to experience closeness with their peers, whether in sports or other activities. It’s important to facilitate opportunities for all youth to participate in activities.

“For children and teens to participate in activities, they have to want to participate. Therefore, they should be asked and involved in deciding which activities to offer youth,” says Lysfjord.

Limited research available

The prevalence of depressive symptoms and the importance of participating in leisure activities among younger adolescents have not been researched much.

Lysfjord’s dissertation dealt with the occurrence and duration of depressive symptoms, the incidence and variation of depressive symptoms among children and adolescents who participated in various leisure activities, and the connections between physical activity and exercise, cultural participation and depressive symptoms.

The findings are the result of a survey among students in 6th to 10th grade (11-14 years) in two municipalities in Trøndelag county. The various parts of the survey included from 1429 to 1748 student respondents.

Students were asked about depressive symptoms, psychosocial stresses and participation in sports and other cultural activities. Depressive symptoms were mapped using a Norwegian version of “The Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire.” The same data material was used in all three studies.

Full bibliographic information

Forekomst, variasjon og kjønnsforskjeller av depressive symptomer blant barn og unge som deltar i ulike fritidsaktiviteter, en tverrsnittstudie 2020, Nordisk tidsskrift for helseforskning: Volum 16 ; Juul, Else Marie Lysfjord; Hjemdal, Odin; Aune, Tore