Exercise is linked to a wide range of benefits for children, from helping them sleep better to supporting their immune systems. Now, a new analysis provides another reason to encourage kids to get moving: Regular exercise could alleviate symptoms of depression in children and teens. 

The analysis, published in January in JAMA Pediatrics, reviewed 21 studies — data from more than 2,400 young children and adolescents — to identify if there was a connection between physical activity and a decline in depressive symptoms. Of the studies analyzed, the exercise sessions included a range of activities, such as aerobics and sports, and averaged about 50 minutes. 

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to put enough studies together so that we can make a pretty good conclusion to answer the question, ‘Is physical activity and exercise good for children with depressive symptoms?’” co-study author Walter Thompson, a retired professor of exercise physiology with Georgia State University, told U.S. News. “The answer is overwhelmingly yes.”

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Researchers found that children age 13 or older and with depression or another mental illness experienced the most benefits from the physical activities. Another takeaway of the study was exercise programs shorter than 12 weeks produced the best reduction in depressive symptoms. The researchers said more studies are needed to further investigate this link. 

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While this isn’t the first time the impact of exercise on children’s mental health has been analyzed, the information reinforces the idea that physical education programs are important and more movement is beneficial to children’s bodies, brains, and well-being.

However, mental health experts note that exercise isn’t a substitute for therapy and medicine. 

“I would not want folks hearing this to think that exercise alone is an alternative form of treatment,” Eugene Beresin, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, explained to The Wall Street Journal

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Overall, this new insight aligns with the CDC’s recommendation of one hour or more of physical activity each day for children between 6 and 17. The CDC also suggests that parents encourage their kids to get active at a young age, expose them to a variety of activities, and make physical activity part of a family’s daily routine. (Added bonus: More movement is linked to better mental health for adults, too.) 


Especially as studies show rates of depression and other mental health issues increasing as children get older, this new insight can be an extra tool in your toolbox of information to help the kids in your life feel better and be their best selves.