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In Fitness/Health, Mood Disorders on Saturday, 1 December 2012 at 10:31

Physical Exercise Eases the Symptoms of Depression in Children Growing Up in Unsafe Neighborhoods

26 November 2012

Living in unsafe neighborhoods may impact children’s mental health. However, physical activity has been found to be related to lower levels of depressive symptoms among children. A recent study of 89 children aged 9-12 found that physical activity may buffer the relationship between unsafe neighborhoods and child depressive symptoms.

Children living in unsafe neighborhoods are more likely to be depressed. Improving neighborhood safety is perhaps the clearest way to improve the situation, but it’s not always easy to make quick community changes that will benefit children. Given that many neighborhoods will continue to be unsafe, recent research has focused on understanding factors that help break the link between neighborhood safety and depression and therefore inform intervention efforts.

One of these factors is physical activity. Activities such as aerobic exercise and competitive sports teams have benefits for child development – and lower levels of depressive symptoms are just one of these.

One of the challenges is that children who live in unsafe neighborhoods tend be less in engaged in physical activity compared to those in living safer neighborhoods. This is largely due to the lack safe areas for exercise.

Physical activity as a buffer

Child psychologists Sonia L. Rubens and Paula J. Fite from the University of Kansas decided to look at data on depressive symptoms, physical activity and neighborhood safety. They examined whether physical activity acts as a moderator between neighborhood safety and depressive symptoms in school-age children.

They expected children who were physically more active to report fewer depressive symptoms than those who lived in similar areas but weren’t physically active.

The study included 50 boys and 39 girls aged 9-12 from a metropolitan US community with approximately half a million residents. Participants and their caregivers were recruited from neighborhoods that varied in socioeconomic status. The majority of children were Caucasian, and about 27% of the sample received public assistance. Both children and caregivers were asked questions about neighborhood, delinquency, after-school activities, parenting, and peers.

Not surprisingly, there was a significant relationship between living in an unsafe neighborhood and high levels of depressive symptoms. Further, depressive symptoms were more serious for minority (non-Caucasian) youth.

The relationship between neighborhood safety and physical activity was different for children who were physically active and those who weren’t. Among those who participated in any sort of physical activity – whether school sports or other games – living in an unsafe neighborhood did not make depression more likely. However, among those who didn’t participate in any physical activity, children who lived in unsafe neighborhoods were more likely to be depressed than those who lived in safer areas.

The implications for intervention

The study implies that engaging in some physical activity may ease the effect of unsafe neighborhood on child mental health. Providing better options for physical activity for children living in such neighborhoods may be an important next step in prevention and intervention efforts. It may also be a cost-effective way to improve outcomes, as other research suggests.

Meeting this challenge will require practical assistance as well as encouragement, given the lack of safe spaces to play in some of these neighborhoods.

It is likely that physical activity is a buffering factor that is more relevant for children growing up in unsafe neighborhoods that to those living in safer neighborhoods. Namely, the children living in safer neighborhoods reported the lowest levels of depressive symptoms even when they were not engaged in physical activity. That may indicate that these children benefit from other protective factors that are not available to children living in less safe neighborhoods.

Any caveats?

This study comes with several limitations that affect the generalizability of the findings. The sample was small, and the study was based on a questionnaire at a single point in time rather than following children and their families across time. It is not possible to tell from this study, for example, whether a lack of exercise led to depression for children in unsafe neighborhoods, or whether their depression came first and caused them to avoid sports and games – or both.

Either way, establishing that physical activity changes the nature of the link between depression and neighborhood safety may help program designers and commissioners consider community-based interventions for children who live in unsafe neighborhoods.


Rubens, S. L., & Fite, P. J. (2012). The influence of physical activity in the relation between neighborhood safety and depressive symptoms among school-age children. Child Indicators Research, 2. DOI 10.1007/s12187-012-9155-5.

Retrieved from: http://www.preventionaction.org/research/physical-exercise-eases-symptoms-depression-children-growing-unsafe-neighborhoods/5908


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