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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Fit teenagers less likely to suffer from depression as adults

Embargoed until 14 June 2012

A study of more than a million Swedish men reveals that good physical fitness at the age of 18 is associated with a reduced risk of serious depression later in life. The study was carried out by Swedish researchers, and is published online today by the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Previous studies have shown that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of depression, but most of these have been based on interviews with adults.


Researchers from the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy carried out a large-scale study of all Swedish men born between 1950 and 1987, with no history of mental illness, who were enlisted for mandatory military service at the age of 18. When enlisting, all 1,117,292 men were given extensive physical and psychological examinations, including tests of their cardiovascular and muscular fitness.


The researchers followed up the men between 1969 and 2008, and used information from the Swedish National Hospital Discharge Register to see how many had received inpatient treatment for depression. They found that those who performed poorly on the cardiovascular fitness tests at the age of 18 were at greater risk of being hospitalised with depression in later life.


Dr Maria Åberg, the researcher who led the study, said: “The teenage years are a critical period in the development of the brain, when higher functions are established and social and emotional skills develop. Our study demonstrates that low cardiovascular fitness at age 18 predicted serious depression in adulthood.


“We performed separate analyses to reduce the risk for possible reverse causation – in other words, the possibility of early symptoms of depression at the time of conscription affecting the men’s performance on the physical tests. We also undertook a special analysis of the 389,000 men in the study with one or more brothers, to rule out environmental and hereditary factors. Even after taking this into account, the association between physical fitness and risk of depression remained. Even more remarkable is that the increase in risk of depression could be observed in the men up to 40 years later.”


Dr Åberg and her research group have shown in a previous study that high levels of fitness as a teenager impact on IQ and academic performance, and she thinks that schools should give sport a higher status and more resources.


Dr Åberg concluded: “While there’s a need for more research in this area, our results provide strong support for school curricula including more active sporting activity and encouraging habits that build and maintain physical fitness.”

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Nevins
Press & Social Media Officer
Telephone: 020 3701 2543
Claire McLoughlin
Media & Communications Manager 
Telephone: 020 3701 2544
Out of hours contact number: 07860 755896



Åberg M, Waern M, Nyberg J, Pedersen NL, Berg Y, Åberg D, Nilsson M, Kuhn G and Torén K. Cardiovascular fitness in males at age 18 and risk of serious depression in adulthood: a Swedish prospective population-based study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 14 June 2012, epub ahead of print bjp.bp.111.103416


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