Exercise is often lauded as the cure for a variety of afflictions. It's been proven to markedly reduce anxiety levels, raise energy, and improve mood within several hours of participation. A study published June 11th in the Journal of Adolescent Health examines the long term effects of exercise, namely the effects of playing sports in high school, and may prove that consistent exercise in adolescence can help prevent anxiety and other mental disorders in adulthood.

Studying the Effects of School Sports

Researchers from the University of Toronto conducted the study, focusing on over 800 students from 10 Canadian schools. These students were surveyed each year from eighth to twelfth grade, assessed by their participation in school sports. Then, the same students were surveyed three years after their graduation from high school, at which time the researchers focused on mental health. At this point, the participants were asked to evaluate their mental health on a scale of one to five, and were also surveyed to identify possible symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The Results

One of the first things noted was that, among the surveyed young adults, up to 40% reported symptoms of depression, anxiety, and high stress─a dishearteningly high percentage. However, it was also discovered that participants who reported playing high school sports disclosed significantly more positive scores in their mental health assessments as compared to those who did not participate in sports in high school. There was a strong association between playing sports in adolescence and lower rates of depression and stress, along with higher self-reported mental health.

While it's difficult to assess which facet of school sports facilitates this positive association, lead author Catherine M. Sabiston suggested that it may 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." Jack Raglin Ph.D. also spoke on the physiological benefits of frequent exercise, stating that "long-term participation can significantly improve conditions such as clinical anxiety and depression to a degree that rivals medication, both in adults and adolescents."

What These Results Mean

These are promising results, especially when bearing in mind that only school-sponsored sports were considered, while extracurricular sports were excluded from the study. Sabiston emphasized that school sports demand a much lower commitment from parents and students─both in time and money─as compared to extracurricular sports. School sports are more accessible to all parts of the population. Amongst frequent debate about whether or not school funds should be allocated to sports programs, this study advocates for the importance of sports in school curriculums.

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Rachel Jewett, Catherine M. Sabiston, Jennifer Brunet, Erin K. O'Loughlin, Tanya Scarapicchia, Jennifer O'Loughlin. School Sport Participation During Adolescence and Mental Health in Early Adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2014.04.018

Date of original publication:

Updated: August 27, 2016