For many, weight control is difficult and demanding, especially among teens as issues of body dissatisfaction, social alienation and low self-esteem complicate the picture.
Nevertheless, the hazards of being overweight are well-known and include an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, as well as generalized fatigue and weakness.
This difficult landscape led Dr. Gary Goldfield, a psychologist and clinical researcher at the University of Ottawa, to design a study to review the impact of exercise among overweight adolescents.
The study is reported in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.
“The first thing I tell teens and parents struggling with their weight in my practice is to throw away the scale,” said Goldfield.
“These kids face enough challenges with bullying and peer pressure today! This new study is proof positive that even a modest dose of exercise is prescriptive for a mental health boost.”
Researchers randomly assigned thirty adolescents, aged 12-17 years old, to twice weekly laboratory-based sessions of stationary cycling to music of their own choice or to an interactive video game of their own choice for a 10-week trial.
All exercise was supervised and performed at a light to moderate intensity. The music was used as a form of distraction from any perceived discomfort during the exercise. Participants were allowed to stop at their own choice at any time during a 60 minute session.
Teens were asked to report on measures of psychosocial functioning which includes: scholastic competence, social competence, athletic competence, body image, and self esteem.
Although physical benefits from the exercise were mild (probably because of the limited duration of the trial) teens reported improvements in perceived scholastic competence, social competence, and several markers of body image including appearance esteem and weight esteem.
According to Goldfield, exercise induced improvements in body image, perceived social and academic functioning are psychologically empowering and may help buffer against some of the weight-based teasing and discrimination and bias that’s often inflicted on obese kids, which can have devastating effects on their emotional well-being.
“We’re talking about psychological benefits derived from improved fitness resulting from modest amount of aerobic exercise– not a change in weight or body fat,” Goldfield said.
“If you can improve your physical activity and fitness even minimally, it can help improve your mental health. By teaching kids to focus on healthy active lifestyle behaviors, they are focusing on something they can control.”