May 21, 2024

Physically active children are somewhat less likely to have emotional and behavioral problems

A study conducted in the United Kingdom over a span of two years looked at the relationship between physical activity and the emotional well-being of young adolescents, aged 11 to 13. The study found that kids who were more physically active tended to have fewer emotional and behavioral problems and less depressive symptoms. However, it’s important to note that the strength of these associations was quite small. The study was published in Mental Health and Physical Activity.

Depression, one of the most common mental disorders worldwide, often starts developing in adolescence. It is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest or pleasure in most activities. Statistics show that it has been on the rise in recent decades. The COVID-19 pandemic has particularly exacerbated mental health difficulties in younger people, especially during the time of lockdowns.

Early-onset depression during adolescence can have a more challenging outcome compared to depression that arises later in life. This has prompted scientists to explore ways to prevent depression at this young age. Previous research has shown that low physical activity is a risk factor for depression in adults. Due to this, there are therapeutic programs that aim to reduce symptoms of depression and other mental disorders by engaging individuals suffering from those disorders in physical activity (e.g., hiking, surfing, etc.). But what about children?

Study author Josephine N. Booth and her colleagues wanted to examine whether there is an association between the level of physical activity, depressive symptoms, and behavioral difficulties in children/early adolescents. They conducted their analyses on children participating in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, ALSPAC for short.

ALSPAC is an ongoing large longitudinal study investigating a wide range of influences on health and development of children. Women who were pregnant between April 1991 and end of 1992 and who were resident in the former Avon Health Authority in southwest England were invited to participate. The study collected data from 14,901 children from age 1 onwards.

In this study, researchers analyzed associations between the total level of physical activity and the moderate and vigorous physical activity of these children at age 11, with the level of depressive symptoms and emotional and behavioral difficulties at age 11 and 13. Levels of physical activity of these children were objectively measured with an actigraph accelerometer.

The actigraph accelerometer is a wearable device used to measure and record an individual’s physical activity and movement patterns over time. Participants had to wear it for seven consecutive days during waking hours on their right hip. Depressive symptoms were measured using the Short Moods and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ). General emotional and behavioral difficulties were assessed using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ).

For these analyses, data from 4,755 participants were available (2,627 females). This happened because not all children participating in the study attended the clinic for data collection when requested or agreed to wear the actigraph. However, the researchers found only small differences in characteristics of those children who provided data used in this study and those who did not provide these data.

On average, boys had 29 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, while girls had 18. Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity constituted 8% of the total activity for boys and 5% for girls. Among girls, the level of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at age 11 was associated with depressive symptoms at age 11, but not at age 13. There was no such association in boys.

Boys who increased their physical activity between ages of 11 and 13 tended to have lower depressive symptoms. There was no such association among girls.

When participants were divided into categories according to whether their level of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity has increased, decreased or remained the same between ages of 11 and 13, results showed no association with depressive symptoms. However, increases in depressive symptoms between 11 and 13 years of age were weakly associated with decreases in levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and vice versa in both boys and girls.

Higher levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity were associated with lower emotional and behavioral problems (hyperactivity and problems with peers) in both boys and girls, both at 11 and at 13 years of age.

In conclusion, the study found that higher levels of physical activity were associated with fewer depressive symptoms in girls at age 11, and an increase in physical activity between ages 11 and 13 was linked to reduced depressive symptoms in boys. Additionally, more physical activity was connected to better emotional and behavioral well-being for both boys and girls, although the associations were small.

In conclusion, the study found that higher levels of physical activity were associated with fewer depressive symptoms in girls at age 11, and an increase in physical activity between ages 11 and 13 was linked to reduced depressive symptoms in boys. Additionally, more physical activity was connected to better emotional and behavioral well-being for both boys and girls, although the associations were small.

The study, “Associations between physical activity and mental health and behavior in early adolescence” was authored by Josephine N. Booth, Andy R. Ness, Carol Joinson, Phillip D. Tomporowski, James M.E. Boyle, Sam D. Leary, and John J. Reilly.

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