It’s no secret that exercise does wonders for the body. It keeps you looking good, feeling good, and it can even help you live longer. With regularity, exercise has also been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression in teens and adults. Now scientists are studying whether or not these benefits extend to children.
TIME reports that in a new study published in Pediatrics, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology studied data from nearly 800 six-year-olds who were asked about their exercise habits and depressive symptoms, and followed up when they were eight and 10 years old. Overall, scientists found children who exercised more at a moderate to vigorous intensity showed fewer symptoms of depression years later.
“I think that physicians, parents and policy makers should facilitate physical activity among children,” Tonje Zahl, the study’s lead author, told TIME. “The focus should be on physical activity not just for the here and now benefits, such as improving blood pressure, heart rate and other physical benefits, but for the mental health benefits over the long term,” she says.
Zahl and her team were also curious about whether or not depression makes certain children more sedentary and less active, or if being less active brings on depressive symptoms. The found that the amount of time the children spent being sedentary did not predict depression—nor did depression predict how much exercise a child got. For this reason, Zahl recommends parents should worry about getting their kids moving, not limiting their time spent sitting in front of a television.
“I would say that worrying about the time a child is sedentary might not be the right angle,” says Zahl. “Being active is more beneficial, so the focus should be on getting more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity throughout the day.”
She added that the benefits of physical activity may be especially critical for children at high risk for depression, and that children (and parents) with depression should work hard to stay active.