Study shows physical exercise helps protect the mental health of pre teens

During the pandemic, it struck me that some of the worst effects were felt by teenagers. Besides not being able to socialise with their friends, there was the shutting down of physical activity.

How important was that to them? And what harmful effects did it have?

To answer those questions, in a world first, researchers from the universities of Edinburgh, Strathclyde, Bristol, and Georgia in the US, looked at the levels of physical activity in 4,755 11-year-olds, which was measured using devices.

These recorded levels of moderate physical activity – typically defined as brisk walking or cycling – as well as vigorous activity that boosts heart rate and breathing, such as aerobic dancing, jogging or swimming.

The young people and their parents reported on any depressive symptoms from age 11 and at age 13.

Participants’ parents and teachers were also quizzed about the young people’s general behaviour and emotional difficulties.

They concluded that regular physical activity can improve adolescents’ mental health and help with any behavioural difficulties.

Taking part in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on a regular basis resulted in better mental health up to the age of 13.

Physical activity was also linked to less hyperactivity and fewer behavioural problems, such as loss of temper, fighting with other children, lying, and stealing.

Researchers found higher levels of moderate or intense physical activity also had a small but detectable link with fewer depressive symptoms and emotional difficulties.

The findings suggest regular moderate-to-intense physical activity may have a small protective effect on mental health in early adolescence.

DrJosie Booth, from Moray House School of Education and Sport at Edinburgh University, says: “This study adds to the increasing evidence 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 the young to lead h ealthy active lives should be prioritised.”

Professor John Reilly, from the University of Strathclyde, adds: “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 these findings are important.

“Levels of moderateto-vigorous intensity activity are so low in pre-teens globally – less than a third achieve the 60 minutes per day recommended by the World Health Organisation and UK health departments”.

With such a low baseline, any increase in activity could reap a substantial reward in terms of better mental health.