If you've ever started a long walk feeling sad or anxious and ended the walk feeling better, you probably know intuitively what many formal studies have proved—that physical activity does indeed reduce symptoms of depression in the short term. Have you ever wondered how long the effects of that walk, or many walks, might last? Recently, my research team and I had the opportunity to work with ten year's worth of data on the types of sports and physical activities in which youths participated over a span of five years. This NDIT study provided data that helped us observe the effects of physical activity on symptoms of depression four years later, when participating adolescents (12-17 year olds) became emerging adults (18-22 year olds).

Move Now to Ward Off Depression Later

We found a surprisingly strong relationship between higher physical activity and lower symptoms of depression. In fact, our study shows that:

  • Physical activity, assessed as both exercise (moderate-to-vigorous intensity leisure activity) and organized sport participation, reduced the risk for depression and reports of depressive symptoms four years later.
  • The sooner a participant chose to become more physically active, regardless of history or physical activity participation, the better it was for his/her mental health.1

Furthermore, we looked at the effects of school sport participation on future symptoms of depression and stress, as well as self-rated mental health. In this study, we found that:

  • Adolescents that showed greater sport participation in school were more protected from depression symptoms over four years later.
  • Symptoms of depression in young adulthood decreased for every year of school sport participation during secondary school.2

Based on these findings, participation in sporting opportunities offered at school stands out as a proactive way for adolescents to lessen the likelihood of future depression. School-based sports also offer relatively low cost physical activity, with minimal family commitment and resources. They can also provide opportunities for adolescents to connect to school and their peers.

Team Sports Prevent Depression Best

Now, you may ask, does it really matter if an adolescent joins the school basketball team or competes as an individual in judo? My research team and I have just finished a not yet published summary exploring these questions. We found that in combating symptoms of depression, there were clear positive benefits from team sports like basketball, soccer, football, and hockey. Conversely, we found that there were fewer benefits from participating in individual sports like dance, wrestling, and swimming. Note: These findings took into account the context of the sport (i.e., whether participation was during school or outside and unrelated to school).3

We think team sports combat future depression better than individual sports for a few reasons. Team sports offer heightened emphasis on group goals, social support, and sense of connection that provide more opportunity for learning adaptive coping strategies that can be essential for long-term mental health.

Depression Lessens Motivation for Physical Activity

Using the same data, my research team and I have also found support that signs of depression are linked to a reduced likelihood of physical activity. In one study, we found that:

  • Individuals showing more signs of depression throughout adolescence were less likely to participate in leisure exercise and team sports during young adulthood.4
  • In this group of high depressive symptoms, individuals were less likely to meet the health guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week that are recommended for physical, emotional, and social health and well-being.

These findings suggest that physical activity during adolescence could help target depressive symptoms as they occur, as well as in the future.

Focus on Fun, Not Guilt

The research team was curious about mechanisms that might explain the association between depressive symptoms and physical activity. In another study, we tested exercise motivation as a mediator of the link between depressive symptoms and leisure time moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise.5 We found that:

  • Emerging adults who reported higher depressive symptoms tended to report exercising for more extrinsic reasons, such as feelings of guilt or shame.
  • These emerging adults reported lower levels of exercise two years later.

Based on our findings, it seems that helping individuals focus on exercising for fun and enjoyment (intrinsic reasons) through interesting activities could help improve activity levels.

Get Moving!

Looking at the collective results of our studies, two key findings stand out:

1. Adolescents and young adults who report more signs of depression are less likely to be physically active.

2. Physical activity can reduce future symptoms of depression.

The good news is that physical activity, whether it be individual or team sports, can be inexpensive and drug-free. To keep up your mental health, I encourage you and your children to find the activity you enjoy and get moving!

Date of original publication:
Updated on: February 10, 2016


1Brunet, J., Sabiston, C. M., Chaiton, M., Barnett, T. A., O'Loughlin, E., Low, N., & O'Loughlin, J. (2013). The Association between Past and Current Physical Activity and Depressive Symptoms in Young Adults: A 10-Year Prospective Study. Annals of Epidemiology, 23, 25-30; IF=3.215; PMID: 23176784

2Jewett, R., Sabiston, C. M., Brunet, J., O'Loughlin, E., Scarapicchia, T., & O'Loughlin, J. (2014). Sport participation during adolescence and mental health in early adulthood.Journal of Adolescent Health. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2014.04.018

3Jewett, R., Sabiston, C. M., Franks, G., Brunet, J., O'Loughlin, E., Belanger, M., & O'Loughlin, J. (2014). Team versus individual sports participation in adolescence and depressive symptoms in early adulthood. Abstract accepted for the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology conference, London, Ontario, October 2014.

4Sabiston, C. M., O'Loughlin, E., Brunet, J., Chaiton, M., Low, N., Barnett, T. A., & O'Loughlin, J. (2013). Linking depression symptoms trajectories in adolescence to
health-enhancing physical activity and team sports participation in young adults. Preventive Medicine, 56, 95-98; IF=3.216; PMID: 23219680

5Scarapicchia, T., Sabiston, C. M., O'Loughlin, E., Chaiton, M., Brunet, J., & O'Loughlin, J. (2014). Physical activity motivation mediates the association between depression symptoms and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Preventive Medicine, 66, 45-48, DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.05.017.