Health And Wellness

Why Depression In Teens And Exercise Are Linked — And What Parents Can Do To Help

Photo: Cassidy Kelley/unsplash
Why Depression In Teens And Exercise Are Linked — And What Parents Can Do To Help

Depression and declining mental health among today's teenagers is a continued cause of concern for many parents.

But the good news is that if you're parenting a depressed teen, there may be an active solution to help them.

A recent study published in the February 11th edition of the psychiatry publication "The Lancet Psychiatry" found that the more time teens spend sedentary, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of depression.

The study not only confirms what we at Mynd Mvmt have seen anecdotally when it comes to exercise and mental health, it also reminds us why we started this program to begin with.

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According to Aaron Kandola, the study's lead author from Division of Psychiatry at the University College-London, "Our findings show that young people who are inactive for large proportions of the day throughout adolescence face a greater risk of depression by age 18."

After working for years with anxiety and depression in adolescents and young adults, there could be no doubt that depression and inactivity were related.

At Mynd Mvmt, a mental health company founded on body-based modalities to treat anxiety and depression, we have always been interested in the nature of the relationship between mood and movement.

From the beginning, we speculated that moving the body in certain ways would — and could — have huge implications for working with anxiety and depression that go far beyond what we’ve been led to believe about how releasing endorphins makes us feel.

This relationship might even hold the key to lifelong recovery, but to what degree of "engaged movement" (physical activity with intentional focus) improves symptoms of depression and anxiety over the long term?

What we found has so far exceeded our expectations and may have significant implications for the future treatment of anxiety and depression.

Most of us assume inactivity to be a "symptom" of depression, and that people are inactive because they are depressed.

Typically, the standard of treatment involves talk therapy and medication designed to influence brain chemistry to improve mood.

But, when I began to rigorously study the relationship between the mind and body and simultaneously work with a very specific subset of young adult clients, I came to see depressive symptoms may also be activated by inactivity.

My first real indication of a direct causal relationship between "inaction" and depression began by observing a caseload of exclusively young adult male clients. Among this small sample, a coincidentally similar narrative could be heard throughout.

Although there were many demographic similarities among them, two details stood out.

First, these were clients who had been very involved with organized sports in high school, but who did not go on to play in college.

Second, their symptoms of depression and anxiety had forced them to leave college within the first two years.

With 55 percent of all high-school students participating in sports and only two percent going on to play in college, looking back, it’s no wonder why there never seemed to be a shortage of depressed clients who fell into this category.

Could it be that organized sports effectively managed their symptoms during high school? Or could the dramatic drop off in levels of activity have something to do with the sharp increase in symptoms?

In studying human evolution, it becomes impossible for anyone to ignore the reality that never in our history have human beings been as "inactive" as they are right now.

Although it may feel as though life on Earth has always been as it is today, in actuality, life as we know it appears only as a tiny speck on the human timeline.

Researchers estimate that for 200,000 to 250,000 years or more, we lived in hunter-gatherer societies. As hunters and gatherers, that meant living in a daily battle for survival.

These were migrant communities, hunting and gathering for sustenance, pillaging the land for its resources, and protecting themselves from opposing tribes, predators, and Mother Nature.

Following this period in history, we settled into an agricultural way of life. We lived as farmers, tending the land for survival. The civilized world, beginning to resemble what we know now, is quite new.

When you begin to look more closely at how human life has evolved over the last 300,000 years, it quickly becomes apparent that even having the ability to live a sedentary lifestyle is a very new phenomenon.

It has been far too short of a time for the evolution of mankind to catch up to its latest comforts.

For us, this begged the question: Are there major health consequences as a result?

The emphasis in our current paradigm is on making life "easy and convenient." There is no denying we want more and we want it now!

Our daily lives require less and less effort.

Long gone are the days of having to travel on foot or by horseback to go almost anywhere or do anything. Now, we hop in our cars, order meals and groceries, and watch the game on our giant flat screens with surround sound.

Why go to the library when I can just ask Siri? Why play video games at a friend’s house when I can play alongside my "friends" online?

While it’s great to have research to back up our experience, the evidence that "engaged action" or mindful movement improves symptoms of depression was so conclusive, measurable, and consistent, that it became difficult to ignore the larger possible implications.

Not only did we see changes in our clients’ moods, we saw improvements in every area of their lives. Many who had been unable to "show up" for life for years were back in school, working jobs, getting decent grades — clear measurable gains!

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We also noticed other improvements in mental functioning.

Immediately following a 45- to 90-minute session of moderate to rigorous mindfulness-infused physical activity, we saw improvements in overall executive functioning, communication, and interpersonal skills, as well as notable improvement in self-confidence and self-efficacy.

This was true whether the exercise itself was a 45-minute bike ride in the park, a yoga class, working one-on-one with a mixed martial arts coach, or simply participating in a game of basketball.

Even in cases with more pervasive and severe symptoms of mental illness like schizophrenia, the differences before and after were literally day and night!

It was this consistent feedback that would lead us to create a more standard definition of Myndful Movement's program.

As it stands, traditional "behavioral health" treatment models (recognized as the standard of care by insurance companies) do not include movement.

Although we are seeing programs increasingly acknowledge that yoga and meditation can be helpful additions to the healing process, they are still treated as "nice additions" and minimized as forms of exercise.

There are alternative programs such as wilderness treatment, in which clients are sent into the woods with minimal comforts, forced to learn to conquer fears, and overcome insecurities in the hope that clients will graduate with a newfound sense of self-efficacy.

While wilderness programs can be a great option in the right circumstances, the problem lies in the client’s return home from treatment. Although these programs are wonderful, they fall short in their ability to prepare clients to return to the "real world."

The intense pressures young people feel in our achievement-oriented culture, the sense of having to "be on track," and the unique challenges that daily living presents, simply do not translate from one environment to the other.

Expecting them to transfer their experience is comparable to assuming your relaxing 10-day vacation will lead to a lifetime of serenity. This is just not how the brain and body work.

This highlights not only some of the challenges that wilderness-based treatment models face but also the challenges residential treatment programs face as a whole.

Kandola also states, "We found that it's not just more intense forms of activity that are good for our mental health, but any degree of physical activity that can reduce the time we spend sitting down is likely to be beneficial."

Unfortunately, the solution here lies not only in making changes to our behavior.

Studies like these only provide further evidence in support of what we believe to be painfully obvious — that understanding the relationship between the mind and body is the missing piece to long-lasting mental health.

The answers lie in our understanding of how the mind and body system work together to create our experience, as well as in the decisions we then make based on that crucial information.

It is this basic understanding and all of its larger ramifications that we believe hold the key to overcoming anxiety and depression once and for all!

RELATED: 17 Signs Your Teen Is Suffering From Anxiety (& How You Can Help)

Samantha Benigno is a mental & behavioral wellness specialist.