Regular school sports can stop children feeling depressed, research suggests. Teenagers who exercised at least three days a week improved their mental health, the study said.
It found that physical activity was a “remarkable medicine” for youngsters with depression, and should be instilled in school curriculums to boost their wellbeing.
The research looked at data from trials involving 2,400 children, with an average age of 14, from countries including Britain.
Assessments ranked children’s depressive symptoms, such as feeling sad or struggling to sleep, before and after exercise. The exercises, over three months, involved at least three days of sport a week, with each session lasting 50 minutes on average.
The study, led by the University of Hong Kong, found that the severity of the signs of depression reduced by about a third, with the biggest benefits recorded in those children who had been diagnosed with depression.
The authors said the report showed the importance of physical education and school sports alongside therapy or antidepressants and “highlights the potential of structured physical education programmes in primary and secondary schools for improving the mental health of children and adolescents”.
The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, said exercise released endorphins and was thought to cause “long-term changes in brain plasticity” so children could escape negative thought patterns.
In a linked editorial, Professor Eduardo Bustamente, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote that “physical activity is remarkable medicine” and that children with depression could potentially be offered talking therapies while exercising as a form of intervention.
“The evidence that physical activity is effective medicine for mental health is robust; now we need to find ways to get people to take it.”
The NHS recommends that children aged 5 to 18 do at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. But less than one in five children meet this target, with girls less active than boys. Improving exercise levels could help reduce the rate of mental illness in young people.
NHS data shows that 12 per cent of children aged 7 to 16 have a “probable” mental disorder such as anxiety or depression.
Mental illness surged during the pandemic, when being stuck at home during school closures led to a rise in obesity and loneliness.
The number of children needing treatment for serious mental health problems, including depression, has risen sharply in the past year
The number of under-18s who were referred for mental health treatment on the NHS rose by 39 per cent to 1.16 million in 2021-22.
In addition to being linked to a rise in depression, sedentary lifestyles and school closures in lockdown also caused obesity rates to increase steeply to the highest level on record.
One in four children are obese by the time they leave primary school, while a tenth of four and five year olds are obese.TIOB News