Regular exercise may improve adolescent mental health and help with behavioral problems, research suggests.
Physical activity was also associated with reduced hyperactivity and behavioral problems, such as loss of patience, fighting with other children, lying and stealing in young people.
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 level of physical activity of 4755 11-year-olds, measured using devices.
The devices recorded levels of moderate physical activity — usually 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 on their level of depressive symptoms from age 11 and at age 13. The parents and teachers of the participants were also questioned about the young people’s general behavior and emotional problems.
When analyzing the impact of moderate to vigorous physical activity on young people’s mental health and behavior, the team also considered factors such as age, gender and socioeconomic status.
They found that higher levels of moderate or intense physical activity had a small but detectable association with reductions in depressive symptoms and emotional distress.
Regular exercise had a small but observable association with reduced behavior problems, even after controlling for other possible influences, the study found.
The findings suggest that regular moderate and intense physical activity may have a small protective impact on mental health in early adolescence, 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 on how important physical activity is for all aspects of young people’s development – it can help them help feel better, and do better in school. Supporting young people to live healthy and active lives should be a priority.”
Researchers say the study is the first to provide such a comprehensive approach to examining mental health and physical activity in young people.
Professor John Reilly, at the University of Strathclyde, said: “While it seems obvious that physical activity improves mental health, the evidence for such a benefit in children and young people is sparse, so the study results are important. The findings are also important because levels of moderate to vigorous intensity activity worldwide are so low in pre-teens worldwide – less than a third are getting the 60 minutes a day recommended by the WHO and UK health departments.
The study is published in Mental health and physical activity.
The research was funded by the Bupa Foundation. Researchers used data from the Children of the 90s study, also known as the ALSPAC Birth Cohort, based at the University of Bristol. The study is a long-term health research project involving more than 14,000 pregnant women in 1991 and 1992.
Children of the 90s has been following the health and development of the parents and their children in detail and is currently recruiting the children and siblings of the original children for the study. It receives core funding from the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol.