Fitness may help middle school students avoid depression, UNT study says

Monday, August 4, 2014 - 13:28

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- If your sixth grader is physically fit when he or she enters middle school, will he or she be less likely to become depressed before entering high school?

A University of North Texas study suggests that the answer is yes.

A team of researchers led by Camilo Ruggero, assistant professor in the UNT Department of Psychology, measured the levels of depression and cardiorespiratory fitness in 437 students from six middle schools in the Denton Independent School District.

Ruggero presented the results at American Psychological Association annual meeting Aug. 7. The other researchers for the study were staff members with UNT's Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence -- The other researchers were Scott Martin, professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation in the College of Education; Trent Petrie, professor of psychology and Christy Greenleaf, formerly an associate professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation in the College of Education.

All of the students in the study were already part of a state-mandated program created by Texas Senate Bill 530, which was signed into law in 2007. The program measures students' physical fitness and its impact on student academic achievement levels, school attendance, obesity, disciplinary problems and nutrition. The students' fitness levels as sixth graders were determined by the FITNESSGRAM, developed by the Kenneth Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas.

Ruggero and his research team had the sixth graders complete questionnaires about their physical fitness and their emotional well-being, which measured symptoms of depression such as changes in appetite and sleep patterns, low energy and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities. The sixth graders completed the same questionnaires and the same fitness tests a year later as seventh graders.

The results showed that girls who achieved higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness during the sixth grade had lower levels of symptoms of depression during the seventh grade, even after the researchers controlled for pre-existing depression and obesity before sixth grade. Ruggero notes that the study may be the first to examine one year's impact of cardiorespiratory fitness on depression.

Among boys, the effect of cardiorespiratory fitness on depression, regardless of weight, was in the same direction, but was not significant, Ruggero said.

He added that, in general, middle school girls are twice as likely to become depressed as middle school boys.

"Girls face a different set of pressures with body image," he said, adding that levels of depression in both girls and boys rise significantly from middle school to high school, "at the same time that fitness is going the wrong way."

Data from National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration, show that approximately 4 percent of 12- year-olds, male and female, have depression, with the rate increasing to 15 percent for 16-year-old males and females.

Ruggero noted that although exercise-based programs are already part of middle school curricula, students who played organized team sports during elementary school, or were more physically active during elementary school, are at risk of becoming less active during middle school.

Increasing the presence and impact of exercise-based programs in middle schools, he said, would be less difficult than the schools implementing more specialized, depression-focused treatments.

"Fitness won't entirely prevent or cure depression, but it can be an important part of helping to prevent it," he said. "If your sixth-grade child is fit now, you should encourage him or her to keep at it and find ways to stay active."

He added that the research indicated other benefits to fitness, "including a trend toward healthier weight a year later, which carries its own mental and physical health benefits."

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