Regular physical activity can improve teenagers’ mental health and help with behavioral difficulties, according to research.
Regular moderate to vigorous physical activity at age 11 was associated with better mental health between ages 11 and 13, the study found.
Physical activity was also associated with reduced hyperactivity and behavioral problems, such as losing temper, fighting with other children, lying and stealing, in the youth.
Researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh, Strathclyde, Bristol and Georgia in the United States examined data from the Children of the 90s study (also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, ALSPAC). They looked at the physical activity levels of 4755 11-year-olds measured using devices.
The devices recorded levels of moderate physical activity — typically defined as brisk walking or cycling — as well as vigorous activity that increases heart rate and breathing, such as aerobic dancing, jogging or swimming.
The youth and their parents reported their levels of depressive symptoms from age 11 to age 13. Parents and teachers of the participants were also asked about the youth’s general behavior and emotional difficulties.
When analyzing the impact of moderate to vigorous exercise on young people’s mental health and behaviour, the team also took into account factors such as age, gender and socio-economic status.
They found that higher levels of moderate or vigorous physical activity had a small but detectable relationship with reductions in depressive symptoms and emotional difficulties.
Regular exercise had a small but detectable association with reduced behavior problems, even after controlling for other potential influences, the study found.
The findings suggest that regular moderate to vigorous physical activity may have a small protective effect on mental health in early adolescence, the researchers say.
Dr Josie Booth, from the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport, said: “This study adds to the growing evidence base about how important physical activity is for all aspects of young people’s development – it can help them feel better. Priority should be given to supporting young people to lead healthy active lives.”
The researchers say the study is the first to offer such a comprehensive approach to examining mental health and exercise in young people.
Professor John Reilly, at the University of Strathclyde, said: “While it may seem obvious that physical activity improves mental health, evidence of such a benefit in children and young people has been scarce, so the study’s findings are important. The findings are also important because levels of moderate-to-vigorous activity globally are so low among pre-teens worldwide — less than a third achieve the 60 minutes a day recommended by the WHO and the UK Department of Health.’
The study is published in Mental Health and Physical Activity.
The research was funded by the Bupa Foundation. The researchers used data from the Children in the 90s study, also known as the ALSPAC birth cohort, based at the University of Bristol. The study is a long-term health research program involving more than 14,000 pregnant women in 1991 and 1992.
Children of the 90s is closely monitoring the health and development of their parents and children, and is currently recruiting the children and siblings of the original children into the study. He receives core funding from the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol.