Depression among young people has become a serious problem, particularly during and after the COVID lockdowns. The problem is compounded for children who have suffered trauma, and those of us parenting those kids need as many tools in our toolkits as possible.  There’s good news for our kids, a recent survey of international studies found that exercise can be one of the most effective treatments for alleviating depression.

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal analyzed 218 studies from around the world with more than 14,000 participants.  The meta-analysis found a dose-response association between exercise intensity and greater effectiveness in reducing depressive symptoms. In other words, the more intense the exercise, the more beneficial it was in combating depression. However, even low-intensity exercises, such as walking and yoga, also showed measurable and meaningful benefits.

Many of the studies included participants in their late teens, and the analysis revealed the most benefit for young people from rigorous exercise involving aerobic activity. Other activities also showed benefits, although not as great as those for older participants.

The study also compared the effect of exercise to other treatment options. It found that the effect size of exercise was comparable to that of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is considered a gold standard treatment for depression. However, the quality of evidence supporting CBT was higher, indicating a need for more research into the benefits of exercise for mental health.

Furthermore, the analysis suggested that exercise could have a superior effect to antidepressant medication alone. In fact, when exercise was combined with antidepressants, the effect of the drugs improved. This highlights the importance of considering exercise as a complementary treatment option for depression, especially for young people for whom reliance on medication can become problematic.

For those of us trying to help young people overcome trauma, this survey has a lot of important information.  We should always be trying to get professional mental health therapy, but while we are waiting, or in addition, let’s find ways to motivate our kids to put down the electronics and play outside.  If we have foster kids, use the study to advocate for organized sports teams or other active extracurricular activities.  For either foster or stepchildren, come up with family activities that involve physical activity. More and more science is showing that, in many ways, the best thing we can do for our kids to help avoid or reduce depression is to encourage them to be active.


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Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.