Physical activity acts on the psychological as well as the neurobiological underpinnings of depression. Psychologically, engaging in physical exercise has the potential to increase self-esteem as well as directly reduce anxiety and improve mood. Neurobiologically, depression is linked to a deficit of serotonin in the brain, and regular physical exercise increases serotonin. In fact, some studies have found that 30-minutes of aerobic exercise daily for 12 weeks can be as effective in treating depression as medications or traditional therapy; not to mention cost effective.
The problem is that these studies have mostly been conducted under strict research conditions with monetary incentives, which don't necessarily map onto the reality of life very well. Other studies have tried to simply prescribe physical activity to depressed individuals, only to find that very few people stick with the recommended level of activity, and many even drop-out altogether. The point is, depression is characterized by low motivation, so depressed patients can't be expected to be motivated to exercise even if it will help them. It's kind of like telling a deaf person to attend a symphony.
Furthermore, the physical activity of children and teenagers is much different from that of adults. Adults go to sterile gyms and run in place on a machine or repetitively lift heavy pieces of metal every which way until they can't lift anymore. That couldn't be more boring to a child, and even most teenagers. They want to be outside, with other kids their own age, and doing exercise that more closely resembles play than torture. Thus, getting a teenager to comply with a regular, prescribed regimen pf physical exercise is next to impossible without a personal trainer breathing down their necks.
Luckily, innovations over the past decade have brought us products that help monitor and motivate physical activity, like FitBit for walking, Strava for cycling, and now Trace for surfing, skiing and skateboarding. All of these products include a social component where your friends will notice if you've become inactive lately, and you can compare yourself with others to increase your motivation.
What we know from a hundred years of social psychology is that a person running on a treadmill beside another person will run longer and faster than a person running on a treadmill alone. Given this, I can't help but wonder how this new generation of social networking junkies could be better serving our mental and physical health, especially for young populations who still need to have fun while they exercise.
This is a tough predicament. Children who get depression stay sick longer, get sick repeatedly across their lives, and go on to have serious substance abuse problems; while depressed teenagers are at high risk for attempting suicide. The incidence of these negative consequences could be reduced by regular physical activity, but kids find typical aerobic workouts monotonous, boring, and stupid.
That's why I am so excited about devices like Trace and the future of sports. Trace was developed by a young team of creative surfers who put their math and design skills to the test. They were tired of hearing on Facebook about their friend who just ran 6 miles, when they couldn't share about the 2 hours they just spent in the ocean. How many waves did they catch? How fast did they go? How high did they jump? Now there's Trace, where users can motivate each other to be more active in fun activities like surfing, skiing/snowboarding, and skateboarding by sharing information about their activity with one another while also building their self-esteem in a chosen skill and improving their mood. Now if you're the parent of even a moody teenager, you'll know how valuable a good mood and self-esteem can be; but if your child needs more motivation to get active maybe this is what you've been waiting for. Learn more about how to pre-order Trace here.