Physical fitness linked to better mental health in young people

Physical fitness in children and adolescents may protect against the development of depressive symptoms, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to a study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.

The study also found that better performance in cardiovascular activities, strength and muscular endurance were associated with greater protection against these mental health conditions. The researchers found this link to be dose-dependent, suggesting that a child or adolescent who is fitter may be less likely to experience the onset of a mental health disorder.

These findings come amid a surge in mental health diagnoses among children and adolescents in the United States and abroad, prompting efforts to understand and curb the problem.

The study

The new study, conducted by researchers in Taiwan, compared data from two large datasets: Taiwan’s National Student Fitness Tests, which measure students’ physical fitness performance in schools; and the National Insurance Research Databases, which records medical claims, diagnoses, prescriptions and other medical information. The researchers did not have access to the students’ names, but were able to use the anonymized data to compare the students’ physical fitness and mental health outcomes.

Risk of mental health disorder was weighted using three metrics for physical fitness: cardiovascular fitness, as measured by a student’s time in an 800-meter run; muscular endurance, indicated by the number of abdominals performed; and muscle power, as measured by the standing broad jump.

Improved performance in each activity was linked to a lower risk of mental health disorders. For example, a 30-second decrease in 800-meter time was associated, in girls, with a lower risk of anxiety, depression, and ADHD. In children, it was associated with lower anxiety and risk of the disorder.

An increase of five sit-ups per minute was associated with lower anxiety and risk of the disorder in boys, and with a decreased risk of depression and anxiety in girls.

These findings suggest the potential of cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness as protective factors in mitigating the occurrence of mental health disorders among children and adolescents, the researchers wrote in the journal article.

Physical and mental health were already assumed to be linked, they added, but previous research had relied largely on questionnaires and self-reports, while the new study relied on independent assessments and objective standards.

The general picture

US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has called mental health the defining public health crisis of our time, and has made adolescent mental health the center of his mission. In 2021, it issued a rare public advisory on the issue. Statistics at the time revealed alarming trends: From 2001 to 2019, the suicide rate for Americans aged 10 to 19 increased by 40% and emergency visits related to self-harm increased by 88% .

Some policymakers and researchers have attributed the sharp increase to heavy use of social media, but research has been limited and findings are sometimes contradictory. Other experts theorize that heavy screen use has affected teens’ mental health by displacing sleep, exercise, and face-to-face activity, all of which are considered vital to healthy development. The new study appeared to support the link between fitness and mental health.

Its authors concluded that the finding underscores the need for more research into specific fitness programs. These programs, they added, have significant potential as primary preventive interventions against mental disorders in children and adolescents.

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