Regular participation in school sports during adolescence can improve mental health even years later, according to a new study from Prof. Catherine Sabiston of Kinesiology and Physical Education. Exercise has long been known to improve mood and mental clarity. Some research has indicated it could be as effective as medication for certain kinds of depression. But the new study is the first to suggest that the psychological benefits of school sports might be permanent and long-term.
Using data from a large, long-term study of Montreal high school students, Sabiston and colleagues noted students’ participation in such common school sports as basketball, soccer, and track and field (not, however, during phys-ed class or outside of school). Three years later, they assessed the students for symptoms of depression, perceived stress and self-reported mental health. On these measures, students who consistently participated in school sports were significantly better off than those who did not. And the protective effect persisted, even if the students didn’t continue to be active or play sports. “It’s not about the current levels of physical activity,” says Sabiston. “It comes back to what they got from that experience during adolescence. This is what is really impactful for mental health.”
Mental health problems often originate in adolescence and continue into adulthood so it’s important to identify strategies to slow or block their development, says Sabiston.
In a related study of team versus individual sports, Sabiston and colleagues found that only team participation provided protection against depressive symptoms. The reasons for this aren’t clear, although Sabiston suggests that team sports provide feelings of connection, moral development and a bond with an adult who is not your parent. All of which “we are seeing emerge in the literature as protective factors for mental health problems.”