Reducing Adolescent Depression with Physical Activity

Major depression disorders represent a significant health concern for adolescents (those aged 12 to 17 years). Recent studies suggest there may be a link between decreased anxiety and depression among those who are more physically active and incorporate a low to moderate rate of exercise into their daily life.

Key takeaways:

Rates of depression amongst adolescents


In the last ten years, major depression disorders among adolescents have increased by more than 7.7% and have sustained an average increase throughout the years. This public health concern has medical professionals looking for tangible ways to understand the growing trend in adolescent depression.

Research suggests there is a decrease in the rates of depression among those who incorporate physical activity into their daily lives. However, the same studies show an increasing amount of insufficient exercise among adolescents.

81% of adolescents aged 11 to 17 did not meet the recommendations to include at least one hour of physical activity in their daily lives.

One study suggests a significant decrease in symptoms of depression by incorporating even a small amount of activity into the daily life of adolescents. It indicates that including activity, even less than the public health recommendation of one hour of physical activity each day, is beneficial and can have substantial mental health benefits.

How activity prevents adolescent depression

One of the main ways that physical activity can help prevent depression in adolescents is through the brain’s ability to release endorphins while exercising. Moderate levels of activity help reduce stress levels by releasing endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals in the brain that are known to improve mood and reduce feelings of sadness or anxiety.

Endorphins are released from your pituitary gland and hypothalamus. They act like messengers in your body and help to alert your brain of pleasure or pain by sending signals across your nervous system. When these signals of pleasure are sent to the brain during physical activity, it is shown that this can affect stress levels and decrease the likelihood of depression in adolescents.

Other benefits of physical activity


Not only does physical activity benefit your health through the release of endorphins, but the long-lasting effects of physical activity can have numerous benefits on the mental health of adolescents in several ways, including:

  1. Healthy body image. Studies have shown that regular physical exercise can lead to higher rates of body positivity and help adolescents feel better about themselves mentally and emotionally. Another benefit of physical activity for adolescents is promoting higher self-esteem. Both factors are essential in preventing and decreasing the rates of depression in adolescents.
  2. Social connections and interactions. Not only are team sports exciting and promote a healthy lifestyle, but they also promote healthy friendships and relationships with others. Adolescents involved in team sports are more likely to develop long friendships outside their family and schoolmates. This promotes a healthy body, keeps them involved in their communities, and decreases rates of depression and feelings of being alone.
  3. Decreased rates of chronic diseases and health problems. Regular physical activity promotes cardiovascular health and muscle mass. When adolescents have optimal physical health, the rates of depression and anxiety are lessened.
  4. Improved sleep quality. An important factor in decreasing rates of depression in adolescents is getting a good night’s sleep. Physical activity not only exhausts the body, but also does so for the brain. This promotes a better night’s sleep and a more rested morning.
  5. Enhanced brain function. Incorporating physical activity into the life of adolescents has been shown to enhance brain function and therefore helps with cognitive performance, improving memory, attention, and reaction time. When adolescents are doing better in school, studies show a decreased rate of depression.

Ways to incorporate more physical activity

Levels of activity can range from person to person. As studies show, excessive physical activity is unnecessary, and getting a small amount of physical activity can also have substantial benefits to the mental health and well-being of adolescents. Incorporating healthy activities can be as simple as the following:

  • Walking the dog. Going for a short walk with a dog can be a welcomed activity for both the family pet and adolescents.
  • Yoga. Attending a local yoga class has decreased stress and anxiety levels, as focus on yoga is key. Some studios may even offer reduced rates for students and adolescents.
  • Going for a bike ride. Biking is good for cardiovascular health and overall well-being. Getting out in nature is a great way to focus and alleviate stress.
  • Social spots. Some adolescents may find comfort in being around others their age. Being part of a team and relying on each other in a fun and lightly competitive way can alleviate the stress and symptoms of feeling alone.
  • At-home workouts. Numerous platforms, such as YouTube, offer a range of free online cardio classes.
  • Dancing. Closing the door and just dancing alone has been shown an increase in cortisol levels, which helps to alleviate stress and depression symptoms.
  • Household chores. Involving adolescents in taking care of small household chores can help build confidence and have long-lasting mental health benefits.

Although incorporating physical activity is essential, as studies show, it’s just as important to make it work for each individual. Finding a balance between being non-active and excessive activity is vital for adolescents undergoing hormonal changes. Remaining positive and pursuing enjoyable activities for each individual is essential to the prolonged success of decreased depression through physical activity.

Speaking to a professional such as a family medical doctor or psychologist is vital if symptoms of depression persist or cannot be controlled. It’s always important to follow up with a medical professional if feelings of self-harm occur.

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