Can exercise prevent depression in children?

We have long known that exercise can improve the mental health of adults. Can children get the same benefits?

Written by Medibank

We have long known that exercise can improve the mental health of adults. For example, aerobic exercises – such as walking, jogging and swimming – have been found to help adults manage, and reduce symptoms of mild anxiety and depression. The question remains however, whether these benefits are also evident in children.


young children running along a track

Can exercising as children help improve mental health?

To determine the impact physical activity could have on a child’s mental health, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) examined nearly 800 kids at the age of six, with follow-up examinations at the age of eight and 10.

Children were instructed to wear an activity tracker around their waist for seven consecutive days -- only removing it to bathe. In addition, children and parents completed a thorough psychiatric interview to assess each child’s wellbeing and likelihood of depression at each stage of the study.

The correlation between children and adults

The study looked at nine different symptoms of depression and found that kids who had more moderate to vigorous physical activity at ages six and eight, were less likely to have symptoms of major depressive disorder two years later.

Can a sedentary lifestyle contribute to depression?

Interestingly, while previous findings in adolescents and adults found that inactivity could be associated with depression, the NTNU study found no correlation between depression and a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, the study found major depressive order to be quite unusual amongst children, with only 0.3 per cent of 6-year-olds and 0.4 per cent at eight-year-olds indicating mental health disorders.                            

While the researchers did not address why physical activity may reduce future symptoms of depression one explanation could be that exercising – especially through play or sporting activities – could help bolster self-efficacy and self-esteem amongst kids, while also fostering friendships and social integration.

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How to get your kids more active

Parents play a key role in helping their kids become more physically active. Here are some simple ways to get started:

  • Find a fun activity: Help your kids find a sport they enjoy. The more fun they have the more likely they are to continue exercising.
  • Provide active toys: Balls, jumping ropes, trampolines, bikes or bouncing balls are great fun and help stimulate active playing.
  • Be a role model: Set an example. Show your child how much you enjoy sports and physical activity,, and encourage them to try it themselves.
  • Limit screen time: Implement some rules around how much screen time should be allowed at home. Australia's Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines recommend no more than one hour per day for children aged 2 to 5 years.
  • Plan ahead: With other commitments like homework and music lessons, it can be hard to find time for play and exercise. With this in mind, plan ahead to make sure it’s not missed off the list.

24/7 Mental Health Phone Support

Members with Hospital cover can talk with a mental health professional over the phone in relation to any mental health or emotional concern, 24 hours a day 7 days a week on 1800 644 325~.

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Things you need to know

~ OSHC members should call the Student Health and Support Line on 1800 887 283.

While we hope you find this information helpful, please note that it is general in nature. It is not health advice, and is not tailored to meet your individual health needs. You should always consult a trusted health professional before making decisions about your health care. While we have prepared the information carefully, we can’t guarantee that it is accurate, complete or up-to-date. And while we may mention goods or services provided by others, we aren’t specifically endorsing them and can’t accept responsibility for them. For these reasons we are unable to accept responsibility for any loss that may be sustained from acting on this information (subject to applicable consumer guarantees).