In recent years, the media has been awash with information on the health benefits of exercise. Exercise is known to boost mood in adults. But what about younger members of society? Based on recent, high quality survey data, we can estimate that about 11% of adolescents are depressed. Sadly, this means that one in 10 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 experienced a major depressive episode during the year of the survey. These numbers should raise alarm bells for both parents and doctors.
Depression makes teens feel awful, but being depressed as a teen may also have life-long consequences, including being depressed as an adult. Depressive episodes in teens can contribute to poor grades, poor interpersonal relationships, and worse physical health. Depression can also increase the burden of care for parents. In a recent post, I discussed how a teen’s social network can impact his or her chances of becoming depressed. There, we explored how having friends with good spirits could exert a positive influence on a teen’s mood. We have also previously touched on some of the concerns with giving teens antidepressant medication. Today we will tackle the hot topic of exercise and depression in adolescents.
A recent study attempted to delve into the data behind exercise as a treatment for depression in teens using a meta-analysis of credible articles related to treating depression with exercise in adolescents. When conducting a meta-analysis, investigators go through all available medical literature with a fine-toothed comb, and identify the highest quality studies available regarding their topic. In this particular analysis, the authors initially screened 543 studies for possible inclusion into the meta-analysis. Of these, 11 were deemed suitable to include in the meta-analysis. Of those 11, eight yielded good data to do use for some more specific calculations. Let’s take a moment to take that in — out of 543 studies, only eight had appropriate data. In other words, not every study that doctors read, or that receives coverage by the media, is necessarily a high quality study! In general, although not always, meta-analyses are powerful studies because the authors use rigorous criteria to evaluate the studies they include.
The teens included in this analysis were 13 to 17 year olds, who did not have any major physical health problems, such as obesity. The data from the studies compared the use of exercise as treatment for depression against a psychosocial intervention, an educational intervention, treatment “as usual”, or no treatment at all. After combining data, the authors eventually concluded that exercise appears to lead to moderately improve depression in adolescents, particularly in those already receiving some formal treatment. But, treatment “as usual” was not well defined, and we don’t know, for example, how many of these teens were taking antidepressant medication.
So, should we conclude from this study that all teens with depression should be treated, to some extent, with exercise? It is tempting to say yes. However, concluding that all teens with depression should be treated with exercise would over-simplify the results of this study. A person (adult or teen) with depression will likely find that exercise helps improve symptoms to some degree. However, this study doesn’t support the statement that exercise is the best cure for depression. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that in teens who are already undergoing treatment for depression, exercise appears to be a strategy with modest benefits and little downside. This particular study is a wonderful addition to our knowledge base, in that it puts another tool into a doctor’s toolkit to help treat patients with depression in clinical settings.