Time spent outside of school for children today is a lot different than it was 50 years ago. Kids are spending less time playing outside, and more time sitting in front of a screen, watching TV, playing video games, and on social media. This sedentary behavior is impacting our kids’ health, not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally.
Studies show that at any given time, 2-3% of children and 6-9% of adolescents have a major depressive disorder, with 1 in 5 teens experiencing a major depressive episode by the time they graduate high school. To top it off, anxiety disorders, which often lead to depression, are found in 10-12% of children and teenagers. These youth are at a much higher risk of engaging in dangerous behaviors, such as cigarette smoking, alcohol and substance use, and attempting suicide. (1)
However, several studies have looked at the impact that exercise and physical activity have on the mental health of our children, and the results are promising. (12)
What Causes Childhood Depression?
Higher rates of anxiety and depression may be correlated to increased hours kids spend staring at a screen. Children and teens are more connected, and therefore more exposed, to the world than ever before. With social media and the internet, they are receiving messages from a very young age telling them how they should look, think, feel, and act. Kids are becoming increasingly exposed to the tragedies of the world before being taught or developing the necessary mental and emotional skills to process the information. (2,3,8)
Hormones, Biological Chemistry, and Family Traits
An imbalance or change in hormone levels may cause depression in kids and teens, as well as certain biochemical markers. Genetics also comes into play, as kids with blood-relatives who have suffered from mental illness are more likely to develop mental illness of their own. (4)
Early Childhood Trauma
Youth who were exposed to some sort of trauma at a young age, for example, loss of a loved one, physical abuse, or a tragic accident resulting in decreased mental or physical abilities, are at higher risk for developing depression. (4)
Weight and Dieting
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Youth who are overweight are at an increased risk for depression, as well as those who are dieting to lose weight, regardless of whether or not they need to. Obesity and dieting are both closely linked to decreased self-acceptance, which can lead to social anxiety and depression. (5,7)
Higher levels of body fat also increase inflammation levels in the body, which may affect mood and brain chemistry. (5)
Learned Patterns of Negative Thinking
Many children learn early on to feel helpless, rather than capable, in difficult situations. This decreased confidence that they can pull through a bad situation or perceived lack of ability to make positive change increases anxiety and can push them into a depressive episode. (4)
Studies show that the more time children and youth spend sitting, the more likely they are to develop depression. This is most likely for a variety of reasons, including decreased physical health, higher rates of obesity, and more time spent alone indoors than outside making connections with others and nature. (5)
Case Study: Texas School Triples Recess Time, Finds Success
Several studies have looked at the effect of exercise in youth, and they have discovered that an increase in physical activity is a highly effective way to prevent depression in our kids. But before we delve into those effects, a pertinant example of this is occuring in several Texas schools!
After reading about the saddening (but avoidable) causes of childhood depression, one of the last things children need is to be punished at school for not listening or paying attention, fidgeting, and distracting other kids. In other words, being a kid. If anything, school is a safe haven for many children growing up in a home that may not provide the nurturing and love they truly need.
This is one of the main reasons why many school in Texas have implemented (and are being hailed for) a new program that aims to solve behavioral problems. Their hopeful solution really is quite simple: Allowing children to play outside more often during the school day. (14)
Donna McBride, a first-grade teacher at Brown Elementary in Irving, Texas was nervous about the program. Five months into the experiement, however, those fears have been trumped and says, “We’re seeing really good results.” (13) This is exactly why the state’s effort to make time for more outdoor time is working:
Exercise Promotes Mental Health
Releases Happy Hormones
- When your kids exercise, feel-good chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin are released into your brain. This boosts their mood and promotes positive thoughts, squashing the voice inside their head telling them they aren’t good enough or can’t do something. (5,6)
Increases Social Interaction
- Kids who participate in physical activity, whether it’s through organized sports or simply playing outside, have more interaction with their peers and adults. They build friendships and learn how to deal with conflict, as well as find adult mentors other than their parents who they can turn to for help, such as a coach, teacher, or even an older youth. Positive relationships help kids feel loved, accepted, and supported, so they are less likely to engage in destructive behavior and become depressed. (9)
Positive Body Image
- Being physically active increases the confidence children and teens have in the actual physical capabilities of their bodies. This cultivates an appreciation of their body and an increase in self-love and self-acceptance, decreasing the potential of falling into self-loathing and depression. (10,11)
Tips for Getting Your Kids More Active
There are so many ways to encourage physical activity and prevent depression in your children! Try these and see which ones your children enjoy the most.
Enroll them in Organized Sports
These can be team or individual sports, as well as artistic sports such as dance. In addition to the mental and physical benefits, they will develop new skills, make new friends, and learn valuable lessons in hard work, winning and losing, and fair play.
Limit Screen Time
Implement strict rules about when, what, and how much screen time your children have. This includes TV, computer, video games, and cell phones. Have mandatory outside play time, and encourage reading books instead of watching TV.
Play with Them
Exercise is good for you, too! Make physical activity a family affair – go play baseball in the park, take a trip to the beach, go for walks or runs together, or have a family dance-off in your living room. The exercise plus the bonding and fun family memories are a powerhouse combination for preventing depression in your children, and yourself.
Get outside with your kids and help protect their mental health so that they can go on to lead happy, healthy lives!
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