NEWS

Playing Sports as a Child Could Prevent Depression and Anxiety Later On

little kids playing soccer outdoors

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Key Takeaways

  • New study shows that boys who play sports during early childhood are less likely to experience emotional stress down the road.
  • Participating in sports may help boys develop life lessons like taking taking initiative and engaging in teamwork.
  • The study comes at a time when the pandemic is putting strain on the mental and physical health of young people.

There's little doubt that participating in sports brings numerous health benefits for kids. And a new study shows that playing sports at a young age also carries mental health benefits,
too.

According to the study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, boys who play sports during their early childhood are less likely to experience emotional stress, including symptoms of depression and anxiety, later in life compared to boys who did not participate in sports. 

“Also, boys who had lower levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms were the ones who were
the most physically active in the long term,” says Marie-Josée Harbec, MSc., ps.éd.

Understanding the Research

Harbec conducted research for the study as a doctoral student. Along with her supervisor, she analyzed data taken from a Quebec cohort of 690 boys and 748 girls who were born in 1997 and 1998. The information they looked at was reported by parents of the children and included the kids’ physical activity at 5-years old and 12-years old. They also reviewed reports from the children’s
teachers about symptoms of emotional distress seen in the kids from ages 6 to 10 years. 

The researchers discovered that participating in sports in preschool might help boys develop life skills, such as: 

  • Taking initiative
  • Engaging in teamwork
  • Practicing self-control
  • Building supportive relationships with peers, coaches, and
    instructors

 “We wanted to examine the reciprocal relationship between physical activity and mental health
in children aged 5 to 12 years. More specifically, first we wanted to examine if participating in sports at age 5 years was related to depressive and anxiety symptoms between ages 6 to 10 years,” says Harbec. 

Marie-Josée Harbec, MSc., ps.éd.

In other words, engaging in sports help boys with their emotional wellness, and emotionally well boys engage more often in physical activity

— Marie-Josée Harbec, MSc., ps.éd.

Secondly, they examined if the symptoms influenced the level of physical activity at 12-years old. They discovered that the relationship between sports and emotional wellness was positively
mutual for boys. “In other words, engaging in sports help boys with their emotional wellness, and emotionally well boys engage more often in physical activity,” Harbec says. 

What About Girls?

Harbec analyzed boys and girls separately for her research and did not find any significant relationship between girls' engagement in sports and their emotional wellness.  She points to one explanation being that girls are more likely than boys to seek help from and disclose emotional distress to family, friends, or healthcare providers. 

“In fact, we hypothesize that girls are more likely than boys to seek help from and disclose
their mental health issues to relatives and psychological support from these ties might protect them better (this is supported in the literature),” says Harbec. 

Another explanation she points to is that girls are more at risk of having depressive and anxiety symptoms and that this gender-related risk may have led to early identification and intervention for girls.

“In brief, we did not find in our study that engaging in sports helped girls' emotional wellness.
This does not mean that sports do not benefit girls, but that they probably have other tools to cope with their emotional distress,” says Harbec. 

While studies report that girls reach out for help more, Deborah Serani, PsyD, psychologist and author of “Sometimes When I’m Sad,” adds that, “Much of gender differences don't take into account culture, socialization and other variables that may inhibit boys from reaching out, while girls are encouraged to do so.”

Does Athleticism Have Anything to Do with It?

While the researchers did not measure whether the kids they analyzed were good at the sport they engaged in, they did measure their physical fitness at 12-years old. They discovered that boys who had lower levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms between ages 6 to 10 years were the ones who were the most physically fit at age 12 years.

“We could argue that physically active kids probably have a better physical fitness,” says Harbec. 

A Call for Physical Activity in Kids

Harbec says her study comes at a time when the pandemic’s toll on the mental and physical health of young people is apparent.

“Sanitary measures have banned the practice of sports among most young Westerners. We think that our political leaders must take action to make up for lost time,” she says. 

She also believes schools should provide a variety of extracurricular team sports and structured physical activities beginning in kindergarten. 

Deborah Serani, PsyD

Playing sports, exercising alone, with others, or just even taking a simple walk with your dog reduces the stress hormone, cortisol, increases feel good hormones like, endorphins and releases lactic acid that has been shown to benefit mental wellness

— Deborah Serani, PsyD

“Parents also represent essential investors and allies in promoting physical activity and sport participation among youth [by] acting as role models [and] being directly involved in their children's activities,” says Harbec. 

Serani agrees, noting that the benefits of exercise and physical activity reduce the symptoms
of anxiety and depression in children. 

“Playing sports, exercising alone, with others, or just even taking a simple walk with your dog reduces the stress hormone, cortisol, increases feel-good hormones like, endorphins and releases lactic acid that has been shown to benefit mental wellness,” she says. “Exercise is a gold-standard recommendation for anyone with a mental health disorder.”

A Need for More than Exercise

In addition to exercise, Serani notes that there are many ways to improve symptoms of anxiety and
depression, if you’re unable to be physically fit, including getting help from a mental health professional and Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). 

“One of the best ways I can offer readers is to simply feed your senses. But you need to feed them in particular ways. Depression is a depleting experience, so engaging in activities that brighten or enhance your senses reduces symptoms,” she says. 

For example, she suggests: 

  • Lingering in sunlight or watching nature (sight)
  • Using citrus or herbal aromatherapy (smell)
  • Listening to upbeat or spa music (hearing)
  • Eating spicy food or savoring a warm cup of tea (taste)
  • Taking a hot shower or resting under a weighted blanket (touch)

 “Anxiety generally over-excites our senses, so finding soothing and grounding ways…can really
help,” she says.

What This Means For You

While obesity in children is a known issue in the United States, engaging kids in physical activity
may not only improve their physical health, but can also have positive effects on their mental wellness.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Kuehner C. Why is depression more common among women than among men? The Lancet Psychiatry. 2017;4(2). doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(16)30263-2

  3. Brown JSL, Sagar-Ouriaghli I, Sullivan L. Help-seeking among men for mental health problems. The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. Published online 2019. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1_20

  4. Mittal VA, Firth J, Kimhy D. Combating the dangers of sedentary activity on child and adolescent mental health during the time of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2020;59(11). doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2020.08.003