Researchers at the American Psychological Association found that preventing depression in the sixth grade, via gym class and recess, can stave off depression throughout the rest of adolescence.
Depression is the third leading cause of death and the number one leading cause of disability in teens. The study found that there is a significant association between the onset of depression in the sixth grade and depression in later teen years.
“Depression that begins at this time can lead to chronic or recurring depression in later years,” Camilo Ruggero, APA researcher, told Education News. “Fitness programs are one way to help prevent depression in middle schoolers, but schools should also use other interventions, such as one-on-one or group therapy, that more directly address symptom treatment among depressed adolescents.”
Researchers also found that structured cardiovascular exercise beginning in sixth grade decreases depression levels for teen, especially in girls.
Rusty Gregory, a wellness coach involved in the study, told Daily RX., “We’ve known for a while now that exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, generates the production of endorphins. These are chemicals that bind to receptors in the brain to help produce positive, pain-reducing feelings."
Those pain-relieving side effects are found just as effective for relieving mental pain and stress as they do their physical counterparts.
The Georgetown study does not stand alone in its findings. A study from the Newcastle University in the U.K. found similar results in 2013.
"Exercise has so many advantages as a therapy: It is non-drug, has few side effects and has countless other health benefits. But it has never been tested in youth as treatment for depression, before now" study author Robin Callister, of the University of Newcastle, said in a Society for Neuroscience news release.
"It is no surprise that exercise reduces depression, regardless of age," Mark Solms, co-chair of the Neuropsychoanalysis Association in New York City, told WebMD. "It is well established that vigorous and protracted exercise raises endorphin levels, and that endorphins reduce the mental pain of depression no less than they reduce physical pain."
Because exercise has social and emotional components, the association between exercise and depression goes beyond endorphins and blood oxygen levels. Ruggero explained the involvement in team sports, dance groups and the opportunity to stand out among peers is believed to contribute to self-esteem.
Though researchers are excited about the links between cardio exercise and lowered depression levels they remind parents that a tie between the two does not necessarily prove causation. Ruggero and his team wrote that it is important to consult an mental health expert throughout the treatment of depression and not lean 100 percent into exercise therapy.