Exercise as protection against depression in children

Mental health is becoming an increasing priority for those working with children but we are still a long way behind in equipping young people with the best tools, resources and support to encourage good mental health and tackle mental health issues. Recent statistics show that depression is becoming a more prevalent condition in young people and it’s something that governments, the health industry and those who work with young people need to address and tackle with urgency.

It’s not clear what has caused this increase but assertions have been made about the increasing pressures on young people from social media and celebrity culture. An increase in the incidence of reporting as a result of increased awareness may also contribute to the statistics. It has been suggested by many experts in the field that the increasingly inactive lifestyle of children in modern culture is having negative effects on their physical and mental health. A report presented by Nike, The American College of Sports Medicine, The International Council of Science & Physical Education and several other expert organizations called “Designed To Move” consolidated evidence on this issue and suggested an agenda for change back in 2012. There is still a lot of work to do. So how does physical exercise affect depression in children? Let’s look at the evidence…


Several studies have shown that exercise can help fight depression in adults and emerging research has found that this may likely be the case with children. A study of 800 six year olds in Norway found children participating in a moderate to high level physical activity showed less signs of depression 2 and 4 years later than those only doing mild exercise, or none at all. A larger American study of young teenagers supported this, finding that active children were less likely to suffer from symptoms of anxiety, depression and fatigue.

So, although a lot more research is necessary, it seems evident that exercise in childhood may act as one protective factor against depression both in childhood and later on in adulthood. Of course the illness is complicated and a large number of factors contribute to depression, so it’s not straightforward but exercise seems to have a part to play in a number of cases. Studies have also consistently found that encouraging exercise at an early age makes children more likely to continue exercising later in life, which will continue to protect against mental health issues AND physical health issues.

The overwhelming benefits of sport and exercise for young people is at the core of Nike Sports Camps beliefs, so it’s really encouraging to find more and more evidence to support what we already know based on our years of experience running sports camps. We see young people flourish through sport, whether they start the camp as a total beginner or an aspiring professional athlete.

Recently in the UK, BBC Sport and the English Premier League, along with a number of partners such as Loughborough University have teamed up on a new initiative to help primary school teachers get children moving in the classroom. This is one of many positive steps happening across the world and we’re keen to see more.

So here’s the take-home message…

We know proper heart-rate increasing exercise is good for you physically. We know it’s really good for young people, and that if they start doing it when they’re young they’re more likely to continue to exercise throughout their life. We’re now seeing more evidence that exercise in young people has a directly positive impact on long term mental health, alongside the social and developmental benefits of playing sport, which are also widely reported.  Sports and exercise make for healthier, happier children and adults so let’s spread the word and champion the importance of getting kids active.