Why playing sport from a young age is so good for your mental health

With World Mental Health Day approaching Sportside was intrigued to read the results of a recent study in Canada which found that young boys who play sport are less likely to experience mental health issues as they grow up.

The study found that boys between the ages of five and 12 who play sports before they even start school are less likely to experience ’emotional distress’.

Researchers, who examined the sporting and physical activity habits reported by youngsters aged five and 12, as well as their parents, also said that boys who experience less distress as they grow up are likely to be the ones who are more active in early adolescence.

The study also looked at symptoms of emotional distress from age six to 10 that were reported by the participants’ teachers and analysed 690 boys and 748 girls. Study leader Marie-Josee Harbec at the University of Montreal in Canada said: “There’s widespread evidence of a crisis these days in childhood physical inactivity, and this may ultimately have implications for later mental and physical health.”

“We found that five-year-old boys who never participated in sports were more likely between the ages of six and 10 to look unhappy and tired, had difficulty having fun, cried a lot, and appeared fearful or worried,” added senior author Professor Pagani at the University of Montreal.

“Also, boys who exhibited higher levels of depressive and anxious symptoms during middle childhood were subsequently less physically active at 12-years-old. For girls, on the other hand, we did not find any significant changes.”

Dr Harbec added that boys who engage in sport in preschool might benefit from physical activities that help them develop life skills – such as taking initiative, engaging in teamwork and practicing self-control – and build supportive relationships with their peers and adult coaches and instructors.

“Conversely, boys who experience symptoms of depression and anxiety might be more socially isolated, and have a decreased level of energy and lower feelings of competence, which could in turn negatively influence engagement in physical activity,” Professor Pagani said.

While girls did not seem so affected, Dr Harbec explained that girls are more likely than boys to seek help from and disclose emotional distress to their family, friends or health providers, and psychological support from those social ties protects them better.

Dr Harbec added: “Also, because more girls experience emotional distress than boys, this gender-related risk may have led to early identification and intervention for girls.”

The study also showed that girls who participate actively in school sports activities in middle childhood show improved behavior and attentiveness in early adolescence.

“Surprisingly, however, boys do not appear to gain any behavioral benefit from sustained involvement in sports during middle childhood,” said Prof Pagani.

“Past studies have varied widely in quality, thus blurring the true association between sport and behavioral development.” She added: “On top of that, “past research has not acknowledged that boys and girls are different in how they present ADHD symptoms.”

Sport helps young people develop life skills and supportive relationships with their peers and adults. It offers a chance to get organized under some form of adult influence or supervision.

“Thus, from a public-health perspective, extracurricular sport has the potential to be a positive, non-stigmatizing and engaging approach to promote psychological well-being and could thus be viewed as behavior therapy for youth with ADHD,” Pagani said.

“Sports are especially beneficial if they begin in early childhood. And so, since using concentration and interpersonal skills are essential elements of sport, in our study we undertook to examine whether it would result in reductions in ADHD symptoms over the long term.

“In childhood, boys with ADHD are more impulsive and more motor-skilled than girls — as a result, boys are more likely to receive medication for their ADHD, so faster diagnosis and treatment for boys in middle childhood could diminish the detectable benefits of sport,” Pagani said. “They might be there; they’re just harder to tease out.”

“In girls, on the other hand, ADHD is more likely to go undetected — and girls’ difficulties may be even more tolerated at home and in school. Parents of boys, by contrast, might be more inclined to enroll them in sports and other physical activities to help them.”

She added: “We know that sporting activities have numerous other benefits for the mental health of all children. However, for reducing ADHD symptoms, middle childhood sports in elementary school seem more noteworthy for girls.

“Sports activities in early childhood can help girls develop essential social skills that will be useful later and ultimately play a key role in their personal, financial and economic success.”



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