Study links lack of teen physical activity to poorer mental health

Neelima Choahan

3/05/2018 4:13:05 PM

A lack of physical activity among teenagers has been linked to an increased risk of developing some, but not all, mental health disorders in young adulthood, according to a new study.

New research by Dr Shuichi Suetani shows a link between physical activity and mental health in teenagers.
New research by Dr Shuichi Suetani shows a link between physical activity and mental health in teenagers.

Increased physical activity will protect teenagers against developing mental disorders including depression, according to a new study. 
Published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research – Elsevier, the study examined 3493 youths who took part in the Mater-University of Queensland Study of Pregnancy, a longitudinal study.
Led by Dr Shuichi Suetani from the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, the study looked at the physical activity of a group of 14-year-olds and their mental health outcomes at 21.
‘We found a link between the group of 14-year-olds who had no engagement in physical activity and an increased likelihood of diagnosis with a mood disorder like depression, but not with anxiety disorders or substance use disorders at the age of 21,’ Dr Suetani said.
‘This is consistent with previous research indicating that a lack of physical activity is linked to a later risk of depression.
‘From a biological perspective, this may be because physical activity reduces inflammation which has been linked to depression in teenagers.’
Dr Suetani said physical activity also creates opportunities for increased social interaction and the development of social skills, while offering a good strategy for coping with stress.
‘Other benefits include improved self-esteem which may help create resilience among those with higher levels of physical activity,’ he said. ‘The findings show that teenagers who do not engage in physical activity during this developmental phase may be at an elevated risk of developing mood disorders later in life.’
However, Dr Suetani told newsGP the study is not conclusive, as there was no data about pre-existing mental illness or family history of mental illness in the 14-year-olds.
The younger group was asked to fill in a questionnaire called ‘Youth Self Report’, while the 21-year-olds did a ‘Young Adult Self Report’ measuring emotional and behavioural problems. However, the older cohort was also asked additional questions that would allow for a mental health diagnosis.
‘We couldn’t really tell if people had diagnosed mental illness at aged 14,’ Dr Suetani said.
‘We used a different measure that kind of estimates, but it is not the same as [having a diagnosis] with mental illness.’
Dr Suetani said there is a need for a more detailed study involving a larger group, as well as more objective measures of physical activity, as people often over-estimated their exercise levels. 
Dr Suetani said the study also found that teenagers who engage in a high level of physical activity are at greater risk of increased alcohol use as young adults.
‘Our results suggest that teenage girls who engaged in physical activity were particularly vulnerable to developing substance use disorder, like potential alcohol issues, later on,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why it came up. It could be that alcohol use is prevalent, especially in teen sports culture.’
The study will be presented to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) annual congress from 13–17 May in Auckland.

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