Physically fit middle school girls are significantly less likely to be depressed, according to a study presented earlier this month at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in Washington.
The study examined 437 students (197 male and 240 female) from six different middle schools in North Texas during their 6th and 7th grade years. Each year, the students self-reported their levels of depression and fitness; they also completed a shuttle-run and were weighed during each assessment. The authors sought to determine whether cardiorespiratory fitness had any influence over depression.
To evaluate whether any of the participants demonstrated signs of depression, the study authors relied upon the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale for Children (CES-DC), which assesses how children felt within the past week. In 6th grade, 28.3 percent of girls and 22.3 percent of boys had CES-DC scores that suggested possible depression; 28.5 percent and 18.8 percent, respectively, had the same in Grade 7. Only 13.8 percent of the girls and 10.2 percent of the boys had scores consistent with possible depression during both years.
For girls, higher fitness levels in the 6th grade were linked to both significantly less depression and a lower body mass index (BMI) percentile score in the 7th grade. With boys, 6th grade fitness was associated with lower BMI scores in the 7th grade, but fitness was not significantly linked to less depression in 7th grade. Instead, 6th grade boys with depression had significantly poorer fitness in 7th grade.
“Depression that begins at this time can lead to chronic or recurring depression in later years,” said study author Camilo Ruggero, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Texas, in a statement. “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.”
In the study, Ruggero noted that depression is “a multi-faceted disorder,” and thus, “optimal prevention would couple fitness efforts with more direct interventions that target pre-existing symptoms or related vulnerabilities.” In other words: Sticking your middle schooler on a treadmill won’t necessarily prevent them from becoming depressed.
Given that, in 2011, about 37 percent of 6th graders reported being bullied at school, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the link between higher physical fitness and lower rates of depression shouldn’t necessarily come as a huge surprise. Physical appearance can be an easy target for bullies, and those who are teased frequently suffer a host of negative effects, such as higher rates of anxiety, physical health problems, and, yes, depression, according to the American Educational Research Association.
Just chalk this study up as yet another arrow in the quiver of those fighting against the budget-related elimination of physical education class and recess.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.