Wide variety of physical activities may protect teens against risky behavior: Study

New research out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds that physically active adolescents are not only improving their health they also are decreasing the chance that they will get into trouble.

Among teens who fare well are skateboarders, particularly regarding their self-esteem and despite a lack of wide public support for this activity.

The study found that teens who participate in a wide variety of physical activities, particularly with their parents, are at decreased risk for drinking, drugs, violence, smoking, sex and delinquency, compared to teens who watch a lot of TV.

"Adolescents who spend a lot of time watching TV or playing computer video games tend to be at higher risk for engaging in all of these risky behaviors," said study co-author Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen, assistant professor of nutrition, a department housed jointly in UNC's schools of public health and medicine, and a fellow at the Carolina Population Center.

"Anything we can do to get kids to be physically active will help them in terms of their physical health, but this research suggests that engaging in a variety of activities may also have social, emotional and cognitive benefits, including reduced likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors such as drinking, drugs, violence, smoking, sex and delinquency," Gordon-Larsen added.

The study is published in the April issue of the journal Pediatrics. The first author is Dr. Melissa C. Nelson, who received her doctoral degree from UNC and now is assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota.

The study compared seven distinct clusters of adolescents, defined according to the types of physical or sedentary activities they participated in frequently. These clusters were identified in 2005 by Nelson and Gordon-Larsen, and UNC professors of nutrition Drs. Linda Adair and Barry Popkin.

"Our previous research revealed physical activity and sedentary behavior patterns that vary among teens, and these activity patterns go beyond highly active and not active," Nelson said.

Examples of clusters include:

  • Adolescents who frequently played sports with their parents, who also spent a lot of time playing sports overall;
  • Skaters/gamers, who did a lot of skating, skateboarding, bicycling and playing video games;
  • High TV/video viewers, who made their own decisions about TV viewing and did a lot of it;
  • Teens who often use neighborhood recreation centers; and
  • Adolescents who often participated in school activities, including sports, clubs and physical education.

The current study also asked questions about self-esteem, finding that risk of low self-esteem was lowest for the cluster of adolescents engaging in sports with their parents.

The remaining clusters were groups of adolescents who often used community recreation centers, as well as the group who participated frequently in school activities. Both also tended to have high self-esteem, compared to adolescents who watched a lot of TV.

The risk was similarly low for the skaters/gamers. Skateboarding may get a bad rap, since schools don't generally sponsor it, many public places ban it and not a lot of adults participate in it. "But we found that adolescents who skateboard actually fared well in terms of self-esteem and were less likely to engage in risky behaviors compared to teens who watch a lot of TV," Gordon-Larsen said.

"I think that parents should find ways to participate in sports and physical activities with their children," Gordon-Larsen said. "So, instead of having family TV time, build in time that the family is together and active.

"It's also extremely important for communities and schools to provide safe and affordable recreation facilities and opportunities for physical activity," she added.

At this point, Nelson said, researchers still trying to understand all of the benefits of being active. "This research leads us to believe that those benefits extend well beyond physical fitness. It could be that active teens are being exposed to more opportunities for team-building, engaging in more social interactions with others, or seeing the benefits of hard work and practice."

"We also suspect that all teens might not benefit similarly from the same kind of activity it's not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Helping to provide kids with the opportunity to get involved in any number of physical activities, instead of staying at home and watching TV, may provide a kind of resilience against engaging in these other risky behaviors."

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Funding for the research came from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health and from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

UNC School of Medicine contact: Stephanie Crayton, (919) 966-2860 or scrayton@unch.unc.edu
UNC School of Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, (919) 966-7467 or ramona_dubose@unc.edu


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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