If your child is usually on the go—playing sports or running around the yard, for example—you can feel good about this healthy habit. Regular physical activity builds strong bones, keeps the lungs healthy, and helps prevent childhood obesity.
Another good reason to encourage your kid or teen to move: It helps protect their mental health. Physical activity helps reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It may even help prevent depression. In a recent study, researchers assessed a group of 6-year-olds for signs of depression, sent them home with devices to track their activity levels, and then reassessed them at ages 8 and 10. They found that kids who regularly engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity—the kind that leaves you sweaty and out of breath—were less likely to be depressed.
That makes sense. After all, a brisk walk or an invigorating workout makes most people feel better. But how come? When you look a little deeper, genetics begins to tell a bigger story, says Daniel VanDorn, PharmD, a Senior Medical Science Liaison at Genomind.
Let’s take a look at the connection between genes, physical activity, and mental health. Plus, learn how to help your child stay active.
Meet the BDNF Gene
We all have a gene called BDNF, which produces a protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor. It does its work in your synapses, which are those tiny spaces between your neurons (a.k.a. nerve cells).
“BDNF helps you learn new things and remember past experiences. Plus, it has a big impact on your emotions,” says Dr. VanDorn.
“Every kid is born with millions of neurons that don’t do a whole lot at first—until a huge boost of BDNF protein stimulates those cells to form neural networks,” he explains. “That impacts emotional activity and working memory. Thanks to BDNF, the brain is constantly remolding itself based on the child’s needs and environment.”
But each child is different because each child’s genetic makeup is unique. Some kids have a genetic variant of the BDNF gene. “Those who have this variant tend to have lower scores on working memory and impeded long-term memory,” says Dr. VanDorn. “They may also have decreased resilience to stress.”
Luckily, there’s a way to compensate for this BDNF variant: exercise. “In a study, veterans with the BDNF variant who’d been exposed to trauma reported significantly greater symptom severity of post-traumatic disorder,” he says. “But those who had higher levels of physical activity were no more affected than those with the more common genotype.”
So, what happened? “The interaction between the gene and the environment mitigated the problems,” Dr. VanDorn explains. In other words, your genes can predispose you to certain things, but your environment—whether you’re physically active, for example—matters too.
“Similar studies have shown the same genotype-specific benefit of exercise to improve working memory,” he adds. “Everyone benefits from exercise, but these studies suggest that those with this BDNF variant especially benefit. They may be more likely to require exercise to truly thrive.”
What Can Your Child’s BDNF Gene Tell You?
The BDNF gene influences how much BDNF protein a child’s body produces. Some will naturally produce more. Some will naturally produce less.
If your child has a mental health condition, such as ADHD, understanding their BDNF gene can help a clinician make a more personalized treatment plan. Physical activity is often recommended for kids and teens with ADHD, but if your child has low levels of BDNF, exercise may play an even bigger role.
“Physical activity increases your production of BDNF by about 300 percent,” Dr. VanDorn says, citing research in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. “The really interesting thing is that the emotional and cognitive effects of exercise are immediate—it affects the brain structure right away.”
Of course, exercise isn’t a magic bullet. “It doesn’t mean that if you make sure your child with ADHD exercises, you can avoid medication,” he continues. But it does mean that taking a closer look at your child’s BDNF gene can help a clinician develop a personalized treatment plan with recommendations for both medication and exercise.
If your child’s clinician recommends mental health medication, ask if pharmacogenetic (PGx) testing can help. Pharmacogenetic testing through Genomind looks at 24 genes related to mental health treatment, including the BDNF gene. It provides guidance across 10+ mental health conditions and 130+ medications to help clinicians determine:
- Which medications may be more or less likely to be effective
- Which medications may have side effects
- How you metabolize medications for personalized dosing guidance
The Genomind PGx test requires a prescription. Wondering if it can help your child? Learn more about Genomind here.
5 Simple Ways to Get Your Child Moving
For any kid or teen, physical activity is vital to good health—and mental health. The CDC currently recommends that kids and teens between 6 and 17 years old should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. But only 24 percent meet that mark.
Here are some strategies to help your kid or teen get started.
1. Walk the Talk
The best way to get your kids moving? Move more yourself! In a study of families with children between the ages of 7 and 14, when moms reached or exceeded a goal of adding 2,000 steps to their day, their kids took an average of 2,100 additional steps themselves.
Lace up your own sneakers, head out for a walk, and bring the kids along. Show them that exercise is a fun activity the whole family can do together.
2. Know Your Child
Some kids thrive in team sports—a great way to get strenuous exercise and make friends. Encourage them to join the soccer team or sign up for Little League if they’re interested.
Other kids prefer activities that are more solitary. For them, swimming, running, or climbing trees might just be the ticket.
3. Explore Local Parks
It’s simple, it’s free, and it provides countless opportunities to climb, jump, run, and engage in creative play. Plus, research shows that the risk of developing behavioral health problems goes down when kids spend more time in green spaces. At a time when families may have limited travel opportunities, a visit to the park can be a welcome change of scenery.
4. Go Old School
Get some jump ropes, play balls, and hula hoops. Play a game of hide-and-seek, tag, or hopscotch with your kids.
For younger children, try classic backyard games like freeze tag; duck, duck, goose; or monkey in the middle.
5. Sweat with Video Games
If your child is a serious gamer, go with the flow. Check out a dance game like Just Dance or Nintendo Ring Fit adventure, which combines a fun story line with a great fitness workout.
Does Your Medication Work for You?
Get a lifetime of mental health treatment guidance. Genomind’s leading pharmacogenetic test was designed to help your clinician personalize your treatment plan based on your genetic profile. Get started today.