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Tackle Depression In Children With Exercise

I imagine if you’re reading this you’re a proud parent like me. Being a dad to two boys is the most challenging and rewarding job that I’ve ever done. There are a lot of mini-dramas and temper tantrums (and that’s just me, ha ha) that come naturally with the role of parent to happy kids, but what if you’re children are struggling?

With the interruption in learning and social distancing from friends in 2020/21 due to Covid, and missing out on so much education, we’ve seen an increase in depression in children and adolescents. It’s not always that obvious to spot the signs of depression in kids, as sometimes they’ll hide them from you.

I highly recommend that you seek out a qualified mental health professional if you see some of these signs and symptoms in your child’s behaviour.

  • Anger and/or aggression
  • Apathy for or refusal to participate in school, often accompanied by a decline in performance
  • Behavioral changes
  • Complaining of stomach pain, headache, or general malaise
  • Decrease in physical activity
  • Decrease or increase in appetite, which may be accompanied by weight gain or loss
  • Defiance or hostility, which studies show may be a child’s way of expressing worry or distress2
  • Difficulty with concentration and/or executive function
  • Difficulty with sleep, including trouble falling and staying asleep, sleeping too much, and/or not sleeping enough
  • Feeling burned out
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Feelings of grief
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Indecisiveness
  • Low self-esteem and/or self-doubt
  • Reduced interest in activities or hobbies they used to enjoy
  • Running away from home or threatening or planning to do so
  • Social withdrawal from friends and/or family
  • Suicidal ideation, talking about death or dying, self-harm, and/or giving away possessions

So what should you do if your child is suffering from depression? Well, the good news is that there are plenty of things that can help relieve stress and get them on the road to healing. Here’s a quick list of ideas:

  • Keep them busy whether it’s playing board games, watching TV or movies (not excessively), reading books, cooking, art projects, playing with a pet, spending time with friends.
  • Make sure that they’re keeping to a consistant routine. Kids do best when given structure, boundaries, and rules.
  • Make sure that they’re not spending every waking moment in their rooms.
  • Spend quality time with them. Take the time for a family day out now and then. Have conversations with them. Go for a family walk a couple of days a week (this is especially good if you have a dog).
  • Make sure that they are eatin good whole foods the majority of the time, and keeping the fun foods for a treat now and then
  • Last but not least, there’s exercise.

McConnachie family on hill

I want to focus on exercise as it’s my area of expertise, and as I’ve already covered it on various blogs in my Self Care Series it’s fantastic for mental health in adults. Well, I don’t think kids are any different, just shorter and noisier, ha ha.

Recently I read a review of research papers analysing Exercise Effects on Depression in Children and Adolescents. The information is pooled from 30 single studies, involving 2,110 participants from the age of 5-20 years of age. For the test groups, the most common intervention type was exercise (41 mins around for 3 sessions a week). Like most scientific studies on the subject, the control group would continue with their regular routine.

Unsurprisingly, the analysis concluded that exercise has a small to medium, but consistently positive effect on depression in children and adolescents. So it’s a bit of a no-brainer, if they aren’t already, get them moving, keep them healthy, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

It’s all well and good saying that exercise for kids is good for their mental health, but as all parents know, getting them away from their Playstation and exercising can be a battle.

Here are my top 10 ideas to get your kids exercising:

  1. Use exercise as transportation. Walk your kids to school, bike to visit friends. You can also park at the far end of the car park when visiting the supermarket, instead of getting as close to the door as possible.
  2. Involve the whole family. Invite everyone to participate in activities. Taking your child to football practice, Muay Thai or ballet classes are perfect, or how about joining an outdoor adventure, swimming or running club. You can even take part alongside them.
  3. Focus on fun. Kids like to have fun, so they’re more likely to keep exercising if they’re doing an activity they enjoy. Turn on music and have a dance party, or pack in lots of walking during trips to the zoo, park or miniature golf course. I like to take the boys hillwalking whenever I can.
  4. Make activity social. Invite your kids’ friends to join the activity. They’ll probably have more fun as well as be kept accountable through peer pressure.
  5. Use competition as a motivator. Make it a contest between you and the kids to see who can run faster, or do more push-ups or jumping jacks. Give the winner a prize. And, use technology like smart watch to gamify it, tracking your results and progress.
  6. Include kids in household activities. Many household chores, like washing the dog or the car, doing the cleaning, or cutting the lawn, are great opportunities to sneak in a little physical activity.
  7. Give gifts that promote physical activity. Rollerblades, bikes, ice skates, footballs, boxing gloves and even active-play video games make great gifts that promote physical activity.
  8. Limit TV and computer time. Offer them active options, like joining a local recreation center or after-school program, or taking lessons in a sport they enjoy. When your family watches TV together, get everyone moving during the adverts – do jumping jacks, use a hula hoop or even jump rope. 
  9. Plan your holidays with new ways to exercise. Think hiking, off-road cycling, kayaking, camping or snorkeling. You’ll get to explore new places and show your kids the beauty of nature.
  10. Be a good role model. Children are copy cats. They watch and learn habits from you, good and bad. If your kids see you being physically active and having fun, they’re more likely to be active and stay active throughout their lives.

Regular exercise does so much more than help your kids counteract depression. It will help them stay healthier, happier, and able to fight off disease. So, choose physical activities your kids will enjoy, stay positive, get moving, and fall in love with fitness.

In closing, I want to be clear that exercise alone is not the silver bullet for overcoming depression and other mental health challenges. It won’t help every child overcome every issue, but I believe it’s an important ingredient.

If your child or teen is really struggling there’s plenty of help available. Whether it’s the Samaritans, Child Line, or speaking to a therapist, professional help should be sought out if your child is displaying symptoms I’ve discussed in this blog.

“Strength for Life”



Davie McConnachie

Davie McConnachie is Scotland’s leading health and wellness coach, multi-award-winning gym owner, motivational speaker and the founder of DMC Fitness, a fitness education facility known as the premier choice for 1-2-1 personal training. He has inspired thousands of people to fall in love with fitness – his true purpose and mission in life.

Diving into the world of fitness and wellness has helped Davie to deal with his own trauma and inner demons. He, overcame many dark times using his own unique methods to continue his cycle of healing.