Analysis: a new study has found active adolescents had higher levels of mental wellbeing and lower symptoms of depression and anxiety

By John Murphy, Mary Rose Sweeney and Bronagh McGrane, DCU

We know that physical activity is good for our health. Indeed, specific guidelines have been developed to guide how active we are, how often and what type of activity we do. This differs across age ranges with 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity recommended for children and teenagers every day.

But the majority of teenagers do not meet these recommendations. A study of European adolescents found only 13% met guidelines, while Irish studies have reported a decline from 12% to 10% over the past 12 years.

Physical activity guidelines were mainly designed to optimise our physical health, although there is considerable research to suggest it can also greatly benefit our mental health. Adolescents who are physically active on a consistent basis also demonstrate increased self-esteem and enhanced cognitive functioning with the most robust evidence about reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Prof Niall Moyna from DCU on a WHO report that four in five adolescents worldwide do not get enough physical activity to the detriment of their health.

No specific guidelines currently exist on physical activity for optimal mental health. However, a growing body of literature paints a much clearer picture of how much activity is required, what type of activity may be best, and most importantly, the context in which physical activity is undertaken.

A recent study looked at the association between physical activity and mental health outcomes in Irish adolescents. Over 5,600 adolescents completed an online questionnaire which asked about their physical activity levels, sports participation, mental wellbeing, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Only 8% of adolescents met the physical activity guidelines. Males were more active than females and activity levels declined as they progressed through the years in school. Worryingly, only 1% of females in 6th Year were sufficiently active. We also looked at sports participation and 80% of those surveyed were involved in at least one sport in the previous six months, with two thirds involved in at least one team sport.

As distressing as the current physical activity levels appear, symptoms of anxiety and depression are even more concerning. 39% of participants reported symptoms of depression that ranged from mild to extreme while 31% of participants reported symptoms of anxiety that ranged from moderate to concerning. A higher percentage of females reported increased symptoms of depression and anxiety across all measures and sub-categories.

Those who were more active had higher levels of wellbeing and lower symptoms of depression and anxiety. Meeting the 60 minutes per day mark on at least eight out of 14 days (or a minimum of every second day) was associated with the lowest symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Wellbeing continued to increase the more days that teenagers were active.

We divided participants into categories based on activity levels and found a large increase in mental health between those who were least active (approx. zero to one day per week) and those who were somewhat active (two to three days per week). Adolescents who engaged in sport had increased mental health than those who did not.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Dr Una May from Sport Ireland on the new 'Adolescent Girls Get Active' research

Those who engaged in three or more sports had the highest wellbeing and lowest symptoms of anxiety and depression in the entire sample. This is possibly because it is easier to be more active if you are engaged in a variety of sports, but also because you experience a wider range of activities and meet a wider range of people. Team sport was also associated with increased mental health, suggesting the non-physical aspects also contribute such as mastery of goals/skills, autonomous motivation, enjoyment, choice, a sense of belonging and social interaction.

What does this tell us as teachers, coaches, researchers and practitioners? First of all, we must strive to keep as many young people involved in physical activity for as long as possible. Even small increases in physical activity lead to improvements in mental wellbeing. Adding one or two bouts of physical activity per week will most likely lead to improved mental health.

It is important that we provide opportunities for children and adolescents to both participate and remain involved in sport

Encouraging young people to sample a variety of activities helps them develop a wide range of skills, meet many new people and solve a number of different physical, mental and social challenges. Sampling also helps young people find the activity or activities they are most likely to stick with in the longer term. The benefits of team sport can also be achieved through individual activities by setting up support groups and encouraging social content via technology during this socially distanced time.

At a macro level, it is important that we provide opportunities for children and adolescents to both participate and remain involved in sport for physical, psychological and social development. Identifying a variety of role models, providing a meaningful games programme, a reduced emphasis on elitism and increased (or even established) communication between sport governing bodies is key to recruiting and retaining more young people and increasing their physical activity levels.

John Murphy is a PE teacher and currently investigating the relationship between physical activity and mental wellbeing in Irish adolescents as part of his PhD at DCU. Dr Bronagh McGrane is a lecturer in Primary Physical Education and the research convenor in the School of Arts Education and Movement at DCU. Dr Mary Rose Sweeney is Head of School and an Associate Prof at the School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health at DCU.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ