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Being Physically Fit During Teenage Years Reduces Risk of Suicidal Behavior Later in Life

Physical Health

Story at-a-glance -

  • In a new large study, those who were in poor physical shape at the age of 18 were nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as an adult
  • A prior study that found those in good physical shape as a teen had a decreased risk of severe depression later in life
  • Physical activity may help make your brain more resistant to different types of stress and often works as well as antidepressants at treating depression
  • A person who appears suicidal needs urgent professional help; help the person to seek immediate assistance from their doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room, or call 911

By Dr. Mercola

Exercise is most often viewed as a tool to improve your physical fitness, but it actually has profound benefits to your mental and emotional health as well.

In fact, the influence of exercise on brain function may rival its impact on your heart and other muscles. In the latest recent study to investigate this connection, Swedish researchers even revealed that getting in shape in your teenage years has a lasting impact on your future emotional health.

Fit Teens Are Less Likely to Commit Suicide in Adulthood

In a large study of more than 1.1 million Swedish men, those who were in poor physical shape at the age of 18 were nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as an adult.1 The research builds on a prior study that found those in good physical shape as a teen had a decreased risk of severe depression later in life,2 although researchers noted:3

"But even when we exclude individuals who suffer from severe depression in connection with suicide or attempted suicide, the link between poor physical shape and an increased risk of suicidal behavior remains."

Exercise boosts levels of health-promoting neurochemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress and also relieve some symptoms of depression. So it can certainly be used as a daily tool to immediately enhance your frame of mind, reduce stress and feel happier.

However, as this latest study demonstrates, exercise also appears to be a useful tool for protecting your mental health in the long term, via methods that are still being uncovered. For instance, it's thought that physical activity may help make your brain more resistant to different types of stress.

You Can Change Your Brain for the Better with Exercise

One reason why exercise is so beneficial for your brain is that it lowers the activity of bone-morphogenetic protein or BMP, which slows the production of new brain cells. At the same time, exercise increases Noggin, a brain protein that acts as a BMP antagonist. The more Noggin present in your brain, the less BMP activity there is, and the more stem cell divisions and neurogenesis (production of new brain cells) takes place.4

In addition, it's known to treat depression, a major risk factor for suicide, as well as, or better than, antidepressant drugs. This is important, as the knee-jerk conventional treatment for depression and suicidal tendencies is almost exclusively prescription antidepressants.

Yet, more and more studies are confirming that antidepressants intensify violent thoughts and behaviors, both suicidal and homicidal, especially among children, often making them a counterproductive solution to a very serious problem. Exercise, on the other hand, will certainly not harm and only has the potential to help. As Dr. James S. Gordon, MD, a world-renowned expert in using mind-body medicine to heal depression has said:

"What we're finding in the research on physical exercise is that exercise is at least as good as antidepressants for helping people who are depressed… physical exercise changes the level of serotonin in your brain. And it increases your endorphin levels, your 'feel good hormones.'

And also—and these are amazing studies—exercise can increase the number of cells in your brain, in the region of the brain called the hippocampus.

These studies were first done on animals, and they're very important because sometimes in depression, there are fewer of those cells in the hippocampus. But you can actually change your brain with exercise. So it's got to be part of everybody's treatment, everybody's plan."

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Suicide Rates Are on the Rise: Could More Exercise Help?

It's estimated that a person commits suicide every 15 minutes in the US. For each of these suicide deaths, an estimated 8-25 people made suicide attempts.5 Taken together, the latest preliminary 2010 data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists intentional self-harm, or suicide, as the 10th leading cause of all death in the United States. More Americans now commit suicide than die in traffic accidents.6

So, if you have a family history of suicide, have been exposed to suicidal behavior (such as from other family members or friends) or have suffered/witnessed physical or sexual abuse or domestic violence, your risk of suicidal behavior increases. And typically it's a combination of factors that leads to this desperate act.

However, the primary risk factor for suicide is depression in combination with substance abuse, which could include alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescription drugs. It's estimated that more than 90 percent of those who end up taking their own lives fit into this category.7 Exercise may certainly help in this area, as it frequently outperforms antidepressant drugs in relieving depression, and is also useful for alcohol and other addictions.

When you drink alcohol, for instance, it chemically alters your brain to release dopamine, a chemical your brain associates with rewarding behaviors. When you exercise, this same reward chemical is released, which means you can get the same "buzz" from working out that you can get from a six-pack of beer, with far better outcomes for your health.

The challenge lies in getting a severely depressed or suicidal person to gather up the energy and desire to exercise, but once it's started it can be an invaluable help. In the immediacy, however, a person who appears suicidal needs urgent professional help. Help the person to seek immediate assistance from their doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room, or call 911. Eliminate access to firearms or other potential suicide aids, including unsupervised access to medications.

Encourage Your Teen to Stay Active for a Lifetime of Benefits

Leading a physically active lifestyle is a good habit to instill in your child from an early age because although it's never too late to start exercising, the sooner you do it, the better. Keeping kids active at school is a superb way to increase learning, focus and even test results. As many of you reading this have likely experienced, if your mind is feeling cluttered or you're having a mid-afternoon slump, a brisk walk or a quick workout can give you a renewed sense of clarity and focus. This is certainly true for kids and teenagers, too.

There's absolutely no doubt that kids need exercise and that most kids aren't getting enough. Less than one-third of kids aged 6 to 17 get at least 20 minutes of daily exercise in one form or another. This is tragic, considering the multitude of short- and long-term health benefits your child can gain from a regular exercise regimen, in addition to a decreased risk of suicide, including:

Reduced risk of diabetes and pre-diabetes Improved sleep Stronger bones Reduced restlessness or hyperactivity; helps decrease symptoms of ADHD
Improved immune system function Improved mood Weight loss Increased energy levels

Exercise for Teens: What Works Best?

Your teen does not need to log 30-60 minutes in the gym or in a specific exercise class, unless that's really what they want to do. Allow your child to choose activities that appeal to them, and which are age appropriate. Remember that the trick to getting kids interested in exercise at a young age is to keep it fun. Also keep in mind that spontaneous bouts of exercise throughout the day is actually the ideal way of doing it.

Short bursts of activity with periods of rest in between is not only perfect for building your fitness level—this is actually the way your body was designed to move! Kids will typically fall into this behavior quite spontaneously, as long as they're outdoors, and not cooped up in front of a TV or computer screen, but as they get older they may need more organized activities to take the place of active childhood games like tag. Like adults, kids also need variety in their exercise routines to reap the greatest rewards, so be sure your child is getting:

  • Interval training
  • Strength training
  • Stretching
  • Core-building activities

This may sound daunting, but if your teen participates in sports, sprints around the backyard after the dog, rides his bike or skateboards after school, he's covered. Also remember that acting as a role model by staying active yourself is one of the best ways to motivate and inspire your kids, teenagers included. If your child sees you embracing exercise as a positive and important part of your lifestyle, they will naturally follow suit.

Important Suicide Signs to Watch For

I know firsthand that depression and suicide is devastating. It takes a toll on the healthiest of families and can destroy lifelong friendships. Few things are harder in life than losing someone you love, especially to suicide. If you think someone is suicidal, do not leave him or her alone. Most suicide attempts are expressions of extreme distress, not harmless bids for attention.  

If you are feeling desperate or have any thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a toll-free number 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or call 911, or simply go to your nearest Hospital Emergency Department.

Also be aware of the following red flags that someone has a high risk for self-harm. Besides straightforward or "sideways" comments about not wanting to live any longer, suicide signs to watch for in your teen (or anyone) include:

Acquiring a weapon Hoarding medication No plan for the future
Loss of interest in extracurricular activities Changes in eating and sleeping habits Begins to neglect hygiene and personal appearance
Declining grades in school and loss of interest in school Increased risk-taking behaviors Does not respond to praise
Trouble concentrating or paying attention Frequent complaints of boredom Emotional distress leads to physical complaints of fatigue, migraines, pain, etc.
Putting affairs in order Making or changing a will Giving away personal belongings
Mending grievances Checking on insurance policies Withdrawing from people