Many previous studies have found that regular physical activity and exercise promote mental health and are good for a person’s wellbeing. But not many of these have focused on the relationship between activity and mental health in children or adolescents.
A new study led by the University of Edinburgh has investigated the benefits of regular exercise using data from the Children of the 90s study (also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, ALSPAC). They specifically examined the associations between objectively-measured physical activity, depressive-symptoms, and emotional and behavioral difficulties in young adolescents.
The physical activity of 4,755 11-year-olds was recorded using accelerometry devices that measure human movement. The devices recorded levels of moderate physical activity – typically defined as brisk walking or cycling – as well as vigorous activity which boosts heart rate and breathing, such as aerobic dancing, jogging or swimming.
In addition, the young participants and their parents reported on the levels of depressive symptoms experienced at the ages of 11 and 13 years. Participants’ parents and teachers also completed questionnaires about any behavioral or emotional difficulties experienced by the young people.
The results, published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, reveal that the 11-year-old boys averaged only 29 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day. Girls achieved even less. The results for the 11-year-old girls showed they averaged 18 minutes MVPA per day. This is less than the minimum of 60 minutes recommended by the World Health Organization.
Despite this, the researchers found that higher levels of moderate and vigorous physical activity had a small but detectable association with decreases in depressive symptoms and emotional difficulties. In addition, those who were involved in more physical activity showed a small but detectable reduction in behavioral problems, even after controlling for other possible influences. Overall, these results suggest that regular MVPA may have a small protective influence on mental health in early adolescence.
“This study adds to the increasing evidence base about how important physical activity is for all aspects of young people’s development – it can help them feel better, and do better at school. Supporting young people to lead healthy active lives should be prioritized,” said Dr. Josie Booth of the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport.
“While it might seem obvious that physical activity improves mental health the evidence for such a benefit in children and young people has been scarce, so the study findings are important,” said Professor John Reilly from the University of Strathclyde. “The findings are also important because levels of moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity are so low in pre-teens, globally – less than a third achieve the 60 minutes per day recommended by the WHO and UK Health Departments.”
The researchers say the study is the first to offer such a comprehensive approach to examining mental health and exercise in young people, and the results suggest every effort should be made to encourage people in this age group to take part in regular physical activities.