Youth who participate in school sports have less stress and better mental health as young adults, Canadian study finds

According to new research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, young people in Canada who participate in team sports in grades 8-12 experience less stress and have better mental health as young adults.

“It’s important that school administrators recognize the importance of sport participation and physical activity,” said lead author Catherin M. Sabiston of the University of Toronto. “The associations we have found show a long-term impact. School sport from ages 12 to 17 protects those youth from poor mental health four years later.”

Researchers noted that between 23 and 40 percent of youth report that they are depressed and experiencing high stress. The researchers wanted to see if participating in school sports would reduce the trend, Glenda Fauntleroy reports for Health Behavior News Service.

Researchers surveyed nearly 850 students from 10 schools in Canada. “Three years after graduation, participants were asked about how often they experienced depressive symptoms, the amount of stress in their lives and how they rated their mental health on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent),” Fauntleroy reports.

Those who played sports got better scores on all mental-health assessments than those who didn’t play school sports. Therefore, student participation in sports was connected with “lower perceived stress and higher self-rated mental health in young adulthood,” Fauntleroy writes.

Sabiston explained that the study examined school sports participation rather than extracurricular sports because students are a popular group for specific intervention strategies. Also, parents and guardians generally do not have to contribute as much time and money for children to participate in school sports.

“We can only speculate as to the unique effects,” Sabiston said, “but we suspect it might be due to school sport providing adolescents with opportunities to bond with other students, feel connected to their school, interact with their peers and coaches, thus, really providing a social and active environment.”

Evidence suggests that exercise gives significant psychological benefits, Jack Raglin, a professor in the department of kinesiology at Indiana University, told Fautnleroy. “Single sessions of activity reduce anxiety, improve mood and raise feelings of energy that last for several hours,” Raglin said. “Long-term participation can significantly improve conditions such as clinical anxiety and depression to a degree that rivals medication, both in adults and adolescents.” Other positive effects of sports participation are feelings of mastery and accomplishment, he added. (Read more)

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