Facing social pressures, body image issues and many other factors, middle school students sometimes experience depression. A fitness regimen may be one way to help.
Researchers recently wanted to find out if there was another way to combat early onset depression. Instead of medication or therapy, they chose to examine the benefits of cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF).
CRF exercises improve the flow of oxygen in the body. Some examples are running, jogging, swimming and dancing.
The researchers found that CRF was helpful in preventing depression in middle school students — notably females.
This study was led by Camilo J. Ruggero, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of North Texas.
"We've known for a while now that exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, generates the production of endorphins. These are chemicals that bind to receptors in the brain to help produce positive, pain-reducing feelings," said Rusty Gregory, a wellness coach, personal fitness trainer and author of "Self-Care Reform: How to Discover Your Own Path to Good Health" and "Living Wheat-Free For Dummies."
"Another interesting factor about the effects of exercise on middle school-aged children are the social issues involved," said Gregory, who was not involved in this study. "This is the age when boys and girls start to notice each other and begin the quest to become more attractive to the opposite sex, i.e. body image. Another social issue includes athletics and the popularity of playing on school sports teams. The level of success a child has can have a huge impact on how they view themselves which directly effects their self-esteem, self-efficacy and level of depression.
"Engaging in activities / sports / games, such as basketball, soccer and team tag, can help create a competitive atmosphere that makes exercise fun and not dreadful. These positive feelings are more likely to lead to exercise later in life, as well," he said.
For their study, Dr. Ruggero and team observed a group of 437 sixth-grade students — 197 male and 240 female. The study population was drawn from six middle schools in an urban area of northern Texas.
At the beginning of the sixth-grade school year, researchers gathered information on each student. This information included three factors: level of depression, body composition and CRF. The researchers visited the same group at the beginning of seventh grade to collect the information again.
To determine levels of depression, each student completed a survey. The survey asked questions about depressive symptoms and body image. The study authors used the data to measure depression with the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale for Children.
To determine body composition, the researchers weighed and measured each student. They used the weight and height data to calculate body mass index.
Finally, to determine CRF, the students participated in fitness tests during gym class. Tests included running laps and the shuttle-run.
The research team ran tests to see if any of the three factors affected another during the sixth- or seventh-grade years. They also used this information to see if any factors in sixth grade predicted an outcome in seventh grade.
Among the girls, 28.3 percent of the girls had possible depression in sixth grade, and 28.5 percent had it in seventh grade. Of the boys, 22.3 percent in sixth grade and 18.8 percent in seventh grade had possible depression.
For boys, depression in sixth grade was a strong predictor of poor fitness in seventh grade, the study authors noted.
For girls, higher levels of CRF were linked to lean body composition and lower levels of depression. Overall, increased fitness in sixth grade was a strong predictor of lower depression in seventh grade.
"Depression that begins at this time can lead to chronic or recurring depression in later years," Dr. Ruggero said in a press release. "Fitness programs are one way to help prevent depression in middle-schoolers, but schools should also use other interventions, such as one-on-one or group therapy, that more directly address symptom treatment among depressed adolescents."
The study authors presented this study Aug. 7 at the American Psychological Association's 122nd Annual Convention. The authors did not disclose any information on funding or conflicts of interest.