The Effects of Physical Activity on Mental Health in Adolescents
Over the last year and a half, the country, and the world, has experienced an increased level of stress brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and recent civil unrest. Furthermore, due to developments in technology and academic requirements, most adolescents today are exposed to less physical activity and more sedimentary behavior then adolescents in the past. There has been an abundance of research on the effects of physical activity on mental health. This research paper will explore the effects of physical activity and decreased sedentary behavior on mental health in adolescents and how this can be addressed by schools prioritizing physical fitness education, parents developing a physical activity routine, and prioritizing physical activity as a means to promote mental health on a national level.
Physical fitness education has been a part of most school programs for decades. The benefits of physical education can be placed into two categories: physical health and mental health. Studies have shown a significant relationship between physical activity, decreased sedentary behavior and mental health in adolescents. A study of 928 adolescents in six secondary schools suggests physical activity could reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in school aged students. (Bell, Sarah Louise, et al.) This data was collected by obtaining a baseline physical activity measurement using accelerometers. Mental health/wellbeing was measured using the 'Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale'. The argument between the collocation of physical and mental health is further strengthened by the study of 2283 adolescents which compared the amount of physical activity with signs of stress/psychosomatic symptoms. The research found leisure time physical activity may help adolescents cope with stress and stress-related mental health problems. (Dahlstrand, Johan, et al.) Although the last study spoke directly about leisure time physical activity, the benefits of structured physical education can be deduced by the data provided.
Furthermore, multiple studies have found a link between physical education classes and how they can reduce the lack of physical activity in adolescents. A study completed by Fairclough and Stratton found physical education classes had an impact on creating healthy lifestyle habits. They found, "Physical educators are key personnel to help young people achieve physical activity goals." The study goes onto discuss how physical education classes alone may not meet the overall physical fitness requirements needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle. (Fairclough and Stratton) Moreover, a separate study found students who participated in a physical education class were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines. In addition, they found participation in physical education had additional benefits. The benefits include favorable social and cognitive outcomes. (Ryu et al.) The collocation between both mental and physical health can be increased by schools prioritizing physical education as it relates to mental health. By addressing the mental health aspect specifically related to physical activity, it may help drive adolescents to make healthier lifestyle choices as young adults, and potentially motivate them to decrease sedentary behavior which may lead to depression. These lifestyle choices can further impact them as they mature into adults.
Another key component in strengthening physical activity and decreasing sedentary behavior in young adults is by parents providing a physical activity routine for their children, and modeling healthy behavior. The coalition between physical activity and mental health has been examined numerous times and a strong bound has been established. One study compared physical activity and sedentary behavior to mental health in adolescents. They concluded physical activity and sedentary behavior both independently were a factor in mental health. This study also included screen time or the use of electronics and how it related to increased sedentary behavior. (Herman, Katya M., et al.) A subsequent study examined the association of physical activity and sport participation with well-being, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. They found physical activity is associated with better mental health and well-being in adolescents. (McMahon, Elaine M., et al.) This research continues to bolster the argument physical activity has a positive effect on mental health. It provides the necessary argument for parents to create physical activity routines, model positive fitness behavior, and create ways to incorporate fitness into family time.
Research has found parents have a large role in developing physical activity routines and programs for their children. A study of various other research reviews found the following:
Three systematic reviews were identified that deal specifically with interventions in the family and home setting. All three reviews stated that parental encouragement and support can increase [physical activity] in children, as well as reduce sedentary behavior. (Messing, Sven, et al)
A different study also found parental modeling had a positive effect on physical activity in adolescents. (Yao and Rhodes) The above research reiterates the impact parental routine and modeling behavior can impact an adolescent's level of physical activity. By creating a structured routine, and by modeling positive fitness behavior, parents can increase their children's physical activity. Furthermore, by using family time to increase physical activity (i.e. walks, hikes, and other physical activities) parents subsequently decrease sedentary behavior which may lead to increased depression and other psychosomatic symptoms. By incorporating a fitness routine into an adolescent's day, parents are also increasing the overall amount of physical activity a child receives that may not be met by physical education programs in schools due to academic requirements. Thus, benefiting both physical and mental health.
At the national level, policy makers can create awareness campaigns, incentives, and educational outreach programs promoting and prioritizing physical activity as tool to promote mental health in adolescents. When dealing with mental health, researchers have spent an enormous amount of time to determine the collation between physical activity, sedentary behavior, and sleep duration and its effect on mental health in adolescents. The researchers found there was evidence to suggest all three elements had a significant effect on overall mental well-being. (Sampasa-Kanyinga, Hugues, et al.) A separate study suggests physical activity interventions can improve adolescents' mental health. Also, an association was found between increased sedentary behavior and depression and lower mental well-being. (Rodriguez-Ayllon, María, et al.) Although there have been numerous national campaigns to promote physical fitness, these campaigns fail to directly address the collation between physical activity and mental health. One of these programs is the National Physical Activity Plan. The goal of the National Physical Activity Plan is to create policies, programs, and initiatives to increase physical activity in the United States. ("National Physical Activity Plan - Quick Facts") It does not however address the relationship between physical activity, sedentary behavior, and mental health. Another such campaign is the "Move Your Way Campaign" by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This campaign provides a large amount of material and promotes the need for at least 60 minutes of physical activity by adolescents and young adults. ("Move Your Way Campaign") The campaign does not directly incorporate mental health as a benefit of physical activity to adolescents. By directly outlining the benefits of physical activity to mental health, it could potentially increase the number of parents, educators, and policy members who prioritize physical activity as it relates to mental well-being. The increased education and awareness could potentially result in a greater number of students attempting to reach daily or weekly physical activity goals.
Furthermore, researchers have found comprehensive programs need to be developed at all levels of government to effect positive change and improve overall global health. Advocating for physical activity is one of the foremost concerns. (Fletcher et al.) However, a separate study found public acceptance of governmental intervention to change health behavior has greater success if it is less intrusive. (Diepeveen et al.) This brings to light a separate issue regarding how educational outreach programs are created and distributed. A less invasive program geared to educate the public on the benefits of physical activity on mental health may generate a better response and benefit the quality of life for numerous adolescents and young adults. After reviewing the above research, aggressive campaigns which attempt to blame individuals for poor physical fitness may have a negative effect.
This research paper did not attempt to address the potential argument regarding the need to address specific types of physical activity. Very little research has been completed on type, dosage, interval, and overall make-up of what specific physical activity best promotes greater mental health and overall well-being. Hopefully, researchers moving forward are able to create a data driven baseline for young adults to help them maintain not only their physical health but also their mental health.
As a society we have progressed from barely talking about mental health to finally realizing its true effects on our personal and professional lives. We have taken great steps to begin talking about mental health without the past stigmas. Moving forward we need to educate young people and adolescents on the importance of maintaining their mental health, and the benefits of physical activity as it relates to their mental well-being. Addressing physical activity in adolescents by schools prioritizing physical fitness education, parents developing a physical activity routine, and prioritizing physical activity at the national policy level can all lead to greater mental health.