A Call to Action: Get Young Kids Moving

New research says exercise may lessen depression and anxiety in children

Kids don’t just love running, jumping, tumbling, playing — it significantly impacts their mental health, too.

A new study in the journal Pediatrics reveals that “moderate to vigorous physical activity [MVPA] predicts fewer symptoms of major depression in children six to eight years old, and that increasing MVPA may serve as a complementary method to prevent and treat childhood depression.”

Even thin children may be at higher risk of depression if they aren’t active.

While perhaps not particularly surprising, this is still important information given the fact that most children spend anywhere between seven to 10 hours per day sitting in front of a screen.

Those of us who have long been concerned about the extreme amount of time that children spend in front of television, video games, social media, and even at computers doing homework now have reason to limit screen time and get our kids moving.

We have excellent evidence that exercise may really help young kids avoid depression — or help treat it, if it has already been diagnosed. And remember, anxiety is on the same continuum as depression — thus the implication is that vigorous exercise may also help stave off anxiety in young children.

The findings in the study confirm my own medical experience as a pediatrician of 30 years. We physicians have told parents for years to keep kids physically active every day, but with the complex schedules today of parents and kids, regular exercise for children seems to have diminished.

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Obesity has risen, too — and this problem is hard for parents to deal with once it has established itself. We know that children who are overweight are at higher risk for self-esteem issues, anxiety, and depression — but now even thin children may be at higher risk of depression if they aren’t active.

So what’s a parent to do? Here is a road map to sustained success in getting kids moving:

1.) Carve time out every day for your child to either be outside playing or in an organized athletic activity that will make him run, stretch, and get his heart rate up.

2.) Make exercise a family way of life. Get out there with your kids and go for walks regularly. Just as with dieting, a child ages six to eight doesn’t want to exercise alone. She is far more likely to do so if she sees Mom or Dad doing the same.

Be tough and limit non-academic screen time to 40 minutes per day.

3.) Let kids choose what form of exercise they want. If your daughter loves gymnastics, sign her up. Don’t make her do Tae Kwon Do just because you think it’s great exercise. The key is to find something she likes; you don’t want her to become sour on all exercise just because you force her to engage in a sport she hates.

4.) Be sure kids have chores to do. Believe it or not, vacuuming, taking the dog for a walk, or scrubbing floors burns calories. And chores do more: They make kids feel they are contributing to the family workload.

5.) Finally, limit sedentary time for your kids. Yup. This means turn off their screens. When they watch, they sit. Be tough and limit non-academic screen time to 40 minutes per day.

Related: 10 Great Cures for Couch Potatoes

Years later, when they don’t have type 2 diabetes, anxiety, or depression — they’ll thank you.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course, “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids,” which is part of The Strong Parent Project.