New research suggests physical activity can help adolescent children develop important skills such as leadership and empathy. In turn, these skills can influence healthy behaviors.

While team sports and physical activity have been associated with improved self-esteem, better nutrition and less smoking and drug abuse among children, the present study suggests that fostering leadership skills and empathy in children may reinforce healthy lifestyle behaviors.

The study was presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 59th annual scientific session, a premier cardiovascular medical meeting that brings together cardiologists and cardiovascular specialists to further advances in cardiovascular medicine.

Researchers at the University of Michigan gathered physiological data (height, weight, blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol) and responses to questionnaires on diet, exercise, leadership and empathy from 709 public school children in sixth grade. Children were then divided into tertiles by leadership and the three groups were compared with each other.

Middle school children who scored highest in leadership skills were more physically active (≥ 20 min/day) on a weekly basis (4.71 days ± 2.11 days). These children were also apt to show high scores in empathy. Moderate exercise (≥ 30 min/day) and participation in team sports also correlated to higher leadership and empathy scores.

“We looked at reports of activity and participation in team sports, where leadership and empathy skills are frequently developed, to see if we could find differences in reported health behavior,” said Elizabeth Jackson, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine, division of cardiovascular medicine, University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor, MI and a co-investigator on the study.

“It seems that physical activity through team sports and exercise classes may have benefits beyond physical fitness. These findings suggest that children who develop leadership and empathy toward others are more likely to care about their own health, perhaps adopting life-long healthy behaviors that can prevent heart disease.”

She adds that this research indicates that children can be empowered during a critical period of their development that they can make a difference in their own life.

“Health behaviors are tied to other behaviors, so we can consider schools an excellent place to help children start caring for themselves and others,” said Dr. Jackson.

According to AboutKidsHealth’s website, “Physical activity keeps the body strong and healthy and improves mental health by decreasing depression, anxiety, pain and loneliness. Physical activity also improves focus, school performance, sleep and energy levels. Those who undertake regular physical activity enjoy improved relationships and a more positive body image. While it may not seem obvious, physical activity plays an important role in developing the brain and supporting essential mental functions. Research shows that regular moderate intensity exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with learning and memory. Exercise also helps release growth factors, chemicals in the brain that affect the growth and survival of new brain cells as well as blood vessels in the area. Exercise leads to improved motor skills (such as hand-eye coordination), better thinking and problem solving, stronger attention skills and improved learning. Not surprisingly, these all combine to benefit school performance. In fact, even the simple act of playing outside with friends, setting non-academic goals and seeing progress can help the brain refocus when it comes time for school work.”

Further research is needed to gain a better understanding of the correlation between these social skills and healthy diet and exercise behaviors.

This study stemmed from a program called Life in Action, which educates and empowers youth across North America to change themselves through healthy daily choices, an active lifestyle and social responsibility. The program is a partnership of Free The Children and The Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Foundation, a leading philanthropic organization dedicated to tackling the obesity epidemic in North America.

Source: University of Michigan