A growing body of evidence indicates that exercise can lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety. Now a new EU study suggests exercise can help adolescents improve self-image and expand social connections.
The new EU study is found in Clinical Psychological Science.
In the study, researchers Karin Monshouwer, Ph.D., and colleagues examined two existing explanations for the link between exercise and mental health.
One theory is that physical activity has positive effects on body weight and body structure, leading to positive feedback from peers and improved self-image, and ultimately improving mental health.
Another theory, the social interaction hypothesis, posits the social aspects of physical activity — such as social relationships and mutual support among team members — contributes to the positive effects of exercise on mental health.
Monshouwer and her colleagues surveyed more than 7,000 Dutch students, ages 11 to 16. The adolescents completed validated surveys aimed at assessing their physical activity, mental health problems, body weight perception and participation in organized sports.
The researchers also gathered data on the adolescents’ age, gender, and socioeconomic status; whether they lived at home with their parents; and whether they lived in an urban area.
Investigators found that adolescents who were physically inactive or who perceived their bodies as either “too fat” or “too thin” were at greater risk for both internalizing problems (e.g., depression, anxiety) and externalizing problems (e.g., aggression, substance abuse).
Adolescents who participated in organized sports, on the other hand, were at lower risk for mental health problems.
Researchers believe these findings confirm both the self-image hypothesis and the social interaction hypothesis.
Specifically, an adolescents’ body weight perception (i.e., “too heavy,” “good,” or “too thin”) and sports club membership each partially accounted for the relationship between physical activity and mental health.
These results suggest that certain psychosocial factors — body image and social interaction — may help to explain at least part of the connection between physical activity and mental health.
However, researchers acknowledge that other factors, such as the physiological effects of exercise, are probably also at work.
“We think that these findings are important for policymakers and anyone who works in healthcare or prevention. Our findings indicate that physical activity may be one effective tool for the prevention of mental health problems in adolescence,” Monshouwer said.
Monshouwer and her colleagues hope that future studies will be able to examine similar questions while following participants over time. Such longitudinal studies could help researchers to understand how physical activity type and context might influence the relationship between exercise and mental health.