Can Exercise Actually Treat Depression in Teens?

DATE Study: Depressed Adolescents Treated with Exercise

Teenagers are notorious for being moody, irritable and hormonal – symptoms that can also be signs of depression. Research shows us that exercise can help prevent depression in adolescence, but can it also be used as a treatment for those diagnosed with depression? A controlled study by The Cooper Institute shows that exercise may actually be an important part of depression treatment.

Teen depression is a serious condition that can come with serious consequences. Nearly 13% of teens in the U.S. experience depression each year, an increase of 65% for girls and 47% for boys since 2013. Depression is also a major risk factor for suicide, which is now the second leading cause of death among U.S. teens. While depression can feel overwhelming, there are treatment options that can provide hope and a path to recovery.

Medication vs. Exercise

Medication is the most common treatment for depression, but it can be expensive and can lead to additional side effects and health risks. Exercise provides a viable, medication-free method of treating and reducing symptoms of depression. For some teens and young adults, exercise is a more appealing option because it eliminates the stigma associated with psychotherapy and antidepressant medication. Additionally, exercise programs can be tailored to each person’s interests, schedule, and fitness level.

The DATE Study

In 2013, The Cooper Institute conducted a small, controlled study of 30 participants to see if exercise can really be used to treat adolescents diagnosed with depression. Dr. Laura DeFina, an exercise physician and the current President and CEO of The Cooper Institute, reviewed each patient’s information and approved their participation.

During the first two weeks of the intervention, the participating teens came to The Cooper Institute for trainer-lead exercise sessions three times per week. In week 3, the trainer-led sessions dropped to once per week as the teens began following their exercise program at home.

The team randomly assigned each adolescent to either a vigorous exercise group or a control stretching group. Throughout the 12-week intervention, all subjects were monitored on the presence, severity and improvement of their depression symptoms. Researchers also looked at how well each teen followed the exercise program as well as their clinical response/remission, social functioning, and overall satisfaction. They also followed up with the teens after the study at six and 12-month intervals to evaluate their progress.

Results

The results showed that depression symptoms decreased significantly for teens in both groups throughout the 12-week program. However, the exercise group demonstrated a significantly more rapid reduction in depressive symptoms at the 6-week and 9-week marks than the stretch group.

Additionally, 100% of the exercise group and 67% of the stretch group demonstrated an improvement in both the presence and severity of depressive symptoms. By week 12, 86% of participants in the exercise group were in remission (no or mild symptoms) compared to 50% in the stretch group. This dramatic response to exercise as treatment not only exceeds the rates in studies on medication as treatment, but the improvements were also sustained at both the six and 12-month follow-ups.

Finally, a detailed questionnaire on social adjustment revealed nearly the same significant improvements in social functioning for both groups with respect to school, friends, family and anxiety. Overall, the teens in the study reported being ‘very’ to ‘extremely satisfied’ with the quality and effectiveness of the exercise treatment.

Conclusion

The research team determined that exercise is an effective, non-medicinal treatment for depressed adolescents who can safely participate in a structured exercise program. In fact, the benefits of exercise as a treatment for depression appear to match or exceed the benefits of medication while also avoiding the negative side effects and high costs of antidepressants. The exercise group saw positive results much quicker than the stretch group, but the conclusion about exercise is still clear. Regular exercise can be a highly effective treatment for depression in adolescents.

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Written by Andjelka Pavlovic, PhD

Dr. Pavlovic is the Director of Youth Research and Education for The Cooper Institute and is a double-certified personal trainer. Her research focus is muscular strength/endurance, cardiorespiratory fitness, and the impact of both on chronic diseases and health outcomes.