By M. Allison Williams, Ph.D., and Taunya Marie Tinsley, Ph.D., NCC, LPC
Daily exercise can have profound benefits for adolescents – increased energy, maintenance of a healthy weight, prevention of osteoporosis, some forms of cancer and heart disease later in life, and so much more. Exercise can also lead to improved academic performance and establishment of lifelong healthy physical activity habits.
Moreover, adolescents can also reap numerous mental health benefits from physical activity, especially as it relates to depression. A 2006 study showed higher levels of sport participation and physical activity were linked to lower levels of depression, and that exercise can encourage better self-perception. This is very important for teen girls, as research indicates that although girls are no more depressed than boys in childhood, more girls than boys are depressed in adolescence. Even beyond adolescence, up to age 24, females can have nearly double the lifetime incidence of major depressive disorder compared to males the same age, according to a study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. (1)
Ethnic minority adolescents can also reap the benefits of sport participation and physical activity. Although there is a lack of research on depressive symptoms in ethnic minority children and adolescents, it is important for helping professionals to understand that mental health issues may be based on a combination of culture and life stressors from daily experiences. For example, a 2002 meta-analysis found that Hispanic children ages 8 to 16 reported significantly more depressive symptoms than either white or black children, which is consistent with previous research that found higher depression rates in the Hispanic population.
A critical review of the literature conducted in 1993 found that being a member of an ethnic minority group might provide barriers to leisure activities, including exercise and sport participation. Furthermore, a study from 2007 determined that older adolescent girls, especially those with symptoms of depression, typically had the lowest amounts of exercise. For culturally diverse adolescents, including girls and ethnic minorities, high amounts of exercise correlated with low prevalence of depression symptoms. Additionally, physical activity has been shown to reduce anxiety sensitivity, a precursor of panic attacks and panic disorder. (2)
Adolescents can be encouraged to exercise by finding activities they enjoy, especially outside of school. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, physical education curriculums vary widely across the United States and is not required beyond eighth grade in some states. (1) Adolescence is a key time to be active for both physical and mental health benefits, but organized sports aren’t the only way for this age group to accumulate physical activity; even something as simple as a nightly family walk after dinner can improve health, wellness and quality of life.
Additional information on adolescents and mental health and exercise:
Adolescent Health Page from the American Medical Association
(1) Desha, Ziviani, Nicholson, Martin, and Darnell
Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 2007, 29, 534-543
(2) Pedro C. Hallal,1 Cesar G. Victora,1 Mario R. Azevedo1 and Jonathan C.K. Wells2
Sports Med 2006; 36 (12): 1019-1030
(3) Janet Shibley Hyde, Amy H. Mezulis, and Lyn Y. Abramson
Psychological Review 2008, Vol. 115, No. 2, 291–313