Open Access Research article

The association between physical fitness and depressive symptoms among young adults: results of the Northern Finland 1966 birth cohort study

Kadri Suija12*, Markku Timonen1, Maarit Suviola1, Jari Jokelainen13, Marjo-Riitta Järvelin45 and Tuija Tammelin67

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Health Sciences, University of Oulu, Box 5000, FIN 90014, Oulu, Finland

2 Department of Family Medicine, University of Tartu, Puusepa 1a, 50406, Tartu, Estonia

3 Unit of General Practice, Oulu University Hospital, Oulu, FIN, 90029, Finland

4 National Public Health Institute, P.O. Box 310, Oulu, FIN, 90101, Finland

5 Imperial College, London, UK

6 LIKES – Research Center for Sport and Health Sciences, Viitaniementie 15a, Jyväskylä, FIN, 40720, Finland

7 Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Aapistie 1, Oulu, FIN, 90220, Finland

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:535  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-535

Published: 3 June 2013



The effect of physical activity on mental health has been the subject of research for several decades. However, there is a lack of studies investigating the association between physical fitness, including both cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness and depressive symptoms among general population. The aim of this study was to determine the association between physical fitness and depressive symptoms among young adults.


The study population consists of 5497 males and females, members of the Northern Finland birth cohort of 1966, who at age 31 completed fitness tests and filled in a questionnaire including questions about depressive symptoms (Hopkins’ Symptom Checklist-25) and physical activity. Cardiorespiratory fitness was measured by a 4-min step test and muscular fitness by tests of maximal isometric handgrip and isometric trunk extension. The odds ratios (OR) with 95% confidence intervals (95% CI) for having depressive symptoms were calculated for quintiles groups of physical fitness using the third, median quintile as reference group, and the results were adjusted for potential confounding variables.


Depressive symptoms were most common among males and females in the lowest quintile group of trunk extension test (OR 1.58 and 95% CI 1.07-2.32 in males and OR 1.43 and 95% CI 1.03-2.0 in females) and among males in the lowest quintile group of handgrip strength (OR 1.64 95% CI 1.11-2.42) compared to the reference group. Level of self-reported physical activity was inversely associated with depressive symptoms both in males (OR 1.74 95% CI 1.25-2.36) and females (OR 1.36 95% CI 1.05-1.75). The cardiorespiratory fitness was not associated with depressive symptoms (OR 1.01 95% CI 0.68-1.49 in males and 0.82 95% CI 0.57-1.16 in females).


The results indicate that low level of isometric endurance capacity of trunk extensor muscles is associated with high level of depressive symptoms in both sexes. In males, also poor handgrip strength is associated with increased levels of depressive symptoms. The physical activity level is inversely associated with the prevalence of depressive symptoms among young adults.

Physical fitness; Physical activity; Cardiorespiratory fitness; Muscular fitness; Depressive symptoms; Depression; Young adults