University College London have released new research around physical activity, sedentary behaviour and the association with depressive symptoms. At a time when depression, and other conditions related to poor mental health are seemingly on the rise, one in eight children and young people have a mental health condition, it is important to understand how we can help our young people develop coping mechanisms.

This research has found that between the ages of 12 and 16, the amount of time spent sedentary increases by more than 90 minutes; whilst time spent doing light activity decreases by more than 80 minutes a day. We know from the Active Lives Children and Young People survey that activity levels decline with age: In Greater Manchester 46.2% of year 1 and 2 pupils are active compared to 44.9% of year 7-11’s. Markers of wellbeing also decline; when asked ‘how happy did you feel yesterday’ year 3-6 scored 7.90/10 falling to 6.67 in years 7-11. Research has shown that the decrease in activity levels is driven, in part, by increasing sedentary behaviour and declining light activity.

The research found that higher levels of physical activity at ages 12 and 14 was associated with a lower depression score. Meanwhile, at 12, 14, and 16 years of age, a 60 minute a day increase in sedentary behaviour was linked to a higher depression score which is indicative of depression and anxiety. However, an increase of 60 minutes a day in light activity was associated with a lower depression score at 18. At age 16 this additional activity led to a decrease of 11.1% in depression scores. It is particularly promising to see that major changes are not required to help improve long term mental health outcomes. In fact, a 15 minute increase in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at age 12 led to depression scores 9% lower at age 18.

The study explores how physical activity influences certain psychosocial and biological mechanisms and can help reduce depressive symptoms amongst young people. Whilst the results of this are inconclusive at present it is promising to see how moving more can positively impact these areas.

What has been highlighted is that it is not just intense forms of activity that is beneficial to young people’s mental health but actually any degree of activity and minimising time spent sitting down has positive effects of mental wellbeing.

“Whilst many of us know and have experienced the benefits of physical activity to our mental health and wellbeing, this research has further highlighted the need to support our young people with embedding movement into their daily lives for their long term wellbeing. The fact that light activity can be particularly beneficial is of importance because it can easily fit into the daily routine of young people.

In Greater Manchester there are fantastic examples of schools supporting their students to develop coping mechanisms and healthy life habits to support good mental health. Programmes such as Mentally Healthy Schools and Colleges are offering training for both staff and pupils to create a more supportive environment and increase awareness of mental wellbeing.” Francesca Speakman, Development Manager (Start & Develop Well).

Read the full research from University College London here.