Physical activity in teenagers significantly reduces the likelihood of depression, a study has found.

The study, carried out at the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, involved examining the physical activity of almost 3500 14-year-olds and then assessing their mental health when they were 21.

Study leader Dr Shuichi Suetani said the results of the research were consistent with previous research which indicated a lack of physical activity was related to a risk of depression later in life.

“We found a link between the group of 14-year-olds who had no engagement in physical activity and an increased likelihood of diagnosis with a mood disorder like depression, but not with anxiety disorders or substance use disorders at the age of 21,” he said.

“The findings show that teenagers who do not engage in physical activity during this developmental phase may be at an elevated risk of developing mood disorders later in life.”
Both biological and emotional factors were likely to play a part in that, Suetani said.

“From a biological perspective, this may be because physical activity reduces inflammation which has been linked to depression in teenagers,” he said.

“Physical activity also creates opportunities for increased social interaction and the development of social skills, while offering a good strategy for coping with stress. Other benefits include improved self-esteem which may help create resilience among those with higher levels of physical activity.”

For law student Maysie Chan, 23, joining the Auckland Law School Running Club helped her develop new friendships and gave her joy and a sense of happiness which put her in a positive head space.
“Before I started running, I prioritised my work, studies and responsibilities over physical exercise. This took a toll on my mental health because I wasn’t looking after my overall mental and physical well-being,” she said.

“Running showed me how my physical, mental and spiritual health are all interrelated. The mental resilience I build during my run to keep pushing through during the toughest moments are skills which have been very helpful during moments of stress or when I am feeling down.

“Running has given me a sense of achievement and faith in my own abilities which I had spent a long time trying to find elsewhere.”

Now she is running the New York Marathon, her first marathon, to support the Mental Health Foundation and get people talking about the issue.

“I have seen many people around me suffering significant emotional distress alone and in silence. I wanted to share my own journey and experiences with my community to start an open conversation around mental health and challenge the stigma people feel about talking about these issues.”

Massey University sports psychology lecturer Warrick Wood said he agreed physical activity and sport had a positive impact on mental health when it was in a supportive environment where people were encouraged to learn and grow.

Physical activity is known to increase dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain which makes people feel better while sport could also give young people the chance to cultivate leadership and confidence if the environment was right, he said.

Unfortunately, Wood said, sport could also have the opposite effect, particularly when it came to the highest levels of sport.

There, issues like injury, retirement, selection and the constant pressure to perform, could create high levels of anxiety and depression among athletes.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said physical activity was one of the five ways to well being promoted by the foundation.

It was about “moving your mood”, he said.

“Even a small amount of physical activity on a regular basis will have a positive impact on a person’s mood and mental-health well being.

“It’s not about being an athlete. Very small amounts of regular exercise can be very, very helpful.”

Robinson said exercise was useful for prevention, management and recovery when it came to mental health. But, he stressed, there was no simple solution to reduce the number of suicides.

“Obviously reducing the risk of depression and anxiety is going to be beneficial but it’s not going to be the magic bullet in terms of suicidality.”

The study will be presented at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Annual Congress in Auckland later this month.

This article was written by Amy Wiggins for The New Zealand Herald and features Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research’s Dr Shuichi Suetani.

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