Regular exercise offers a variety of benefits for overweight and obese children, but when it comes to their mental and social health in particular, other kinds of adult-led afterschool programs may be just as beneficial, according to a new study published in the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine.
The findings show that a program with attentive adults, clear rules, routines and activities and a chance to interact with peers seems to work just as well as an exercise program for improving a child’s quality of life, mood and self-worth.
“For me the take-home message is yes, exercise has many wonderful benefits but some of that is because you are in a program run by caring adults,” says study author Dr. Catherine Davis, clinical health psychologist at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) Prevention Institute.
Previous studies, including some led by Davis, have shown that regular physical activity in children who are overweight or obese and inactive can yield a variety of physical benefits, including reduced weight, improved fitness and insulin sensitivity — which reduces the risk of diabetes and other maladies — as well as other mental/emotional benefits, such as improved cognition and reduced anger and depression.
In the new study, the researchers wanted to directly compare an exercise program to a similar sedentary program, and see how each program affected the psychosocial wellbeing of these children.
The study involved 175 predominantly black children, ages 8 to 11, who were overweight or obese and previously inactive. Children participated in either a fun-driven aerobic exercise program for 40 minutes per day, based on their interests and abilities, or a sedentary after-school program where they worked with board games, puzzles, music and/or arts and crafts. Children were free to talk as long as it wasn’t disruptive.
At the beginning and end of the study, the children were evaluated for depressive symptoms, anger expression, self-worth and quality of life. At the start, around 10 percent of children in both groups exhibited depressive symptoms, including sad mood, interpersonal problems and inability to feel pleasure. Depressive symptoms and quality of life were measured again about a year later.
Before the study began, the researchers hypothesized that the exercise intervention would be more effective at improving quality of life, mood and self-worth than the sedentary program.
Instead, they found that while the exercise program had the additional benefits of reducing body fat, improving fitness, and even improved brain health, there was no mood advantage. In fact, in the case of the boys, those in the sedentary group reported depressive symptoms actually decreased more over time than their peers in the exercise group.
Among girls, depressive symptoms yielded similar improvements whether in the exercise or sedentary group, says first author Celestine F. Williams, senior research associate at the Georgia Prevention Institute.
According to the researchers, the gender differences could be due to males in the sedentary group not being under pressure to participate and succeed in physical activities and finding instead an opportunity to pursue more artistic and social endeavors, which children of this age tend to prefer.
In addition, relationships the children built with each other over the course of both programs likely were beneficial in elevating their mood and quality of life, Williams says. The sedentary program may have given children more time to socialize and develop friendships with little competitive pressure.
The fact that both programs provided psychosocial benefit to the children led the researchers to conclude that some benefits of exercise found in previous studies resulted from the regular opportunity to be with attentive adults who provide behavioral structure. It also resulted from the children enjoying interacting with each other, sharing snacks and other activities, while spending less time watching television.
“Exercise is very well demonstrated to improve mood. However, I think you have to consider exercise in the context that it occurs, so the social context counts too,” says Davis.