How physical activity in teens leads to better mental health
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.
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.