Fitness may protect teens from depression

Cardiorespiratory fitness may protect against depression symptoms in youth.

It’s no surprise to most parents that teens can be moody and temperamental, but it can actually be a sign of depression. Physical fitness may be just what teens need to keep depression at bay to stay healthy and keep their grades up. 

Many teenagers struggle with mental health issues like depression – nearly 15% of girls and 8% of boys. Teen depression can lead to bigger problems with their physical health such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome or obesity that can carry on into adulthood. It can also impact their psychological well-being in the form of low self-esteem or suicidal thoughts. Academic performance often suffers as well, which can reinforce negative feelings of self-worth.   

Adolescents with depression are often limited in their ability to perform basic life functions and frequently report being in distress. Depression is debilitating and associated with negative health-related outcomes, so finding methods to prevent it in teenagers is of utmost importance. 

In a recent study, researchers from the University of North Texas and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee examined the relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness, body mass index, and depressive symptoms among young adolescents. 

Measuring Fitness and Depression in Teens

The study looked at nearly 1,000 North Texas middle school students in grades 6 – 8. All students completed the FitnessGram assessment as part of their required physical education curriculum. The team evaluated the students’ cardiorespiratory fitness level (CRF), measured by the 20-meter PACER test, and their body mass index (BMI) according to the FitnessGram Healthy Fitness Zone achievement standards. 

Additionally, all students completed the scientifically validated, 20-item Center for Epidemiological Studies – Depression Scale for Children (CES-DC) questionnaire. They responded to items such as “I feel sad” using a four-point scale ranging from 0 (not at all) to 3 (a lot). The total score helped determine if the student is at risk for major depressive disorder.  

Nearly one-third of the students were identified as at-risk for depression. Looking even deeper, the results showed that those who were not in the Healthy Fitness Zone for CRF were significantly more likely to have elevated depression symptoms. Students in the Needs Improvement category for low CRF were 71% more likely to show symptoms of depression. 

More specifically, girls in the Needs Improvement zone were 63% more likely to have elevated depression compared to the girls in the Healthy Fitness Zone. Boys in the Needs Improvement zone were over two times more likely to have elevated depression compared to the boys in the Healthy Fitness Zone. However, BMI was not significantly associated with the depression score in this sample of young adolescents. 

Fitness Can Help Reduce Depression In Teens

The team concluded that low cardiorespiratory fitness (Needs Improvement) is significantly associated with an increased risk of elevated depression for both boys and girls. However, BMI did not seem to be a factor for either sex. The conclusion is that improving aerobic fitness may be just the thing teens need to improve mental health.   


Riec, T., Jackson, A., Martin, S.B., Petrie, T., & Greenleaf, C., (2013). Health-related fitness, body mass index, and risk of depression among adolescents. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 45(60), 1083 – 1088.

Written by Breanna Palmeiro