Physical activity can improve the mental health of children and adolescents, a study suggests

The new study, conducted by researchers in Taiwan, compared data from two large data sets: the Taiwan National Student Fitness Tests, which measure students' fitness performance in schools, and the National Insurance Research Databases, which track insurance claims , diagnoses, prescriptions and other medical data. information. The researchers did not have access to the students' names but were able to use the anonymized data to compare results related to the students' physical fitness and mental health.

The risk of mental health disorders was weighted against three measures of physical fitness: cardio fitness, measured by a student's time in an 800-meter run; muscular endurance, indicated by the number of sit-ups performed; and muscle power, measured by the standing long jump.

Improved performance on each task was linked to a lower risk of mental health disorders. For example, a 30-second decrease in 800-meter time was associated with a lower risk of anxiety, depression and ADHD in girls. In boys, it has been associated with lower anxiety and risk of the disorder.

An increase in five sit-ups per minute was associated with lower anxiety and risk of disorder in boys and a decreased risk of depression and anxiety in girls.

“These findings suggest the potential of cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness as protective factors in mitigating the onset of mental health disorders among children and adolescents,” the researchers wrote in the journal article.

Physical and mental health were already assumed to be linked, they added, but previous research had relied largely on questionnaires and self-reports, while the new study relied on independent assessments and objective standards.

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has called mental health “the defining public health crisis of our time” and has placed adolescent mental health at the center of his mission. In 2021 he issued a rare public warning on the topic. Statistics at the time revealed alarming trends: From 2001 to 2019, the suicide rate among Americans ages 10 to 19 increased by 40 percent, and emergency room visits related to self-harm increased by 88 percent.

Some policymakers and researchers have attributed the sharp increase to heavy use of social media, but research has been limited and the results sometimes contradictory. Other experts theorize that heavy screen use has affected adolescent mental health by displacing sleep, exercise and in-person activity, all of which are considered vital to healthy development. The new study appeared to support the link between physical fitness and mental health.

“The finding highlights the need for further research into targeted physical fitness programs,” the authors concluded. Such programs, they added, “have significant potential as primary preventive interventions against mental disorders in children and adolescents.”

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