Original Paper

Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology

, Volume 49, Issue 11, pp 1823-1834

First online:

Physical activity patterns and risk of depression in young adulthood: a 20-year cohort study since childhood

  • Charlotte McKercherAffiliated withMenzies Research Institute Tasmania Email author 
  • , Kristy SandersonAffiliated withMenzies Research Institute Tasmania
  • , Michael D. SchmidtAffiliated withMenzies Research Institute TasmaniaDepartment of Kinesiology, The University of Georgia
  • , Petr OtahalAffiliated withMenzies Research Institute Tasmania
  • , George C. PattonAffiliated withDepartment of Paediatrics, Royal Children’s Hospital, University of MelbourneMurdoch Childrens Research Institute, Royal Children’s Hospital
  • , Terence DwyerAffiliated withMurdoch Childrens Research Institute, Royal Children’s Hospital
  • , Alison J. VennAffiliated withMenzies Research Institute Tasmania

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Little is known about how physical activity patterns during childhood and adolescence are associated with risk of subsequent depression. We examined prospective and retrospective associations between leisure physical activity patterns from childhood to adulthood and risk of clinical depression in young adulthood.


Participants (759 males, 871 females) in a national survey, aged 9–15 years, were re-interviewed approximately 20 years later. Leisure physical activity was self-reported at baseline (1985) and follow-up (2004–2006). To bridge the interval between the two time-points, historical leisure activity from age 15 years to adulthood was self-reported retrospectively at follow-up. Physical activity was categorized into groups that, from a public health perspective, compared patterns that were least beneficial (persistently inactive) with those increasingly beneficial (decreasing, increasing and persistently active). Depression (major depressive or dysthymic disorder) was assessed using the Composite International Diagnostic Interview.


Compared with those persistently inactive, males who were increasingly and persistently active had a 69 and 65 % reduced risk of depression in adulthood, respectively (all p < 0.05). In retrospective analyses, females who were persistently active had a 51 % reduced risk of depression in adulthood (p = 0.01). Similar but non-significant trends were observed for leisure physical activity in females and historical leisure activity in males. Results excluded those with childhood onset of depression and were adjusted for various sociodemographic and health covariates.


Findings from both prospective and retrospective analyses indicate a beneficial effect of habitual discretionary physical activity since childhood on risk of depression in young adulthood.


Depression Epidemiology Physical activity Population-based Prospective