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Why Exercise May Do A Teenage Mind Good

Jan 7, 2013
Originally published on January 8, 2013 8:02 am

It's well known that routine physical activity benefits both body and mind. And there are no age limits. Both children and adults can reap big benefits.

Now a study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explores whether certain factors may help to explain the value of daily physical activity for adolescents' mental health.

Researchers from the Trimbos Institute in the Netherlands looked at two possible explanations for the link between exercise and good mental health. One was positive self image and the other was winning friends. They surveyed 7,000 Dutch students, ages 11 to 16.

Yale University child psychologist Alan Kazdin, the editor of Clinical Psychological Science, says the findings show just how bountiful the benefits of exercise can be.

"I think it would be too strong to call it an elixir, but it has the broad effects of something like that," he says.

In the survey, researchers found that teenagers who took part in organized sports had a more positive self image and greater self esteem than teens who weren't physically active.

They were simply happier, more grounded and less likely to engage in problematic behavior, "like social withdrawal and anxiety, getting into trouble, aggressive behavior with others," says Kazdin. All these negative behaviors were lower among the teens who exercised. The study also found those students who were on teams had more friends.

Sport psychology coach Greg Chertok says that when it comes to being more confident, the study findings are something of a chicken and egg dilemma.

Does the exercise make teenagers more confident or do more confident teenagers take part in sports?

"I think teenagers who have positive self perceptions are more likely to test their mettle and insert themselves into competitive environments, and to insert themselves into mentally and physically demanding situations," says Chertok.

Now the study doesn't mean every teenager needs to be on a sports team. Exercise in any form, says psychologist Kazdin, is well worth it.

That could be a dance class, jogging or Wii sports. With school budget cuts, though, physical education is often the first thing to go. That's a big mistake, says Kazdin.

"This might be the first class you include in any school curriculum rather than the one you get rid of and you would do it even if you didn't like exercise because we know now that exercise enhances school academic performance," he says.

That, along with the social and emotional benefits found in this study, add up to a strong argument for teenagers to either take part in sports or commit themselves to some form of daily exercise.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Today in "Your Health," counseling for young people. We're going to look at mental health on college campuses. But we begin with teens and exercise. It is well-known that routine physical activity benefits both body and mind. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports on a study that examines how much exercise can improve a teenager's attitude.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Researchers found physical activity can help teenagers in two, powerful ways. One is confidence. Take 16-year-old volleyball player Jennifer Ramirez.

JENNIFER RAMIREZ: I've made something of myself, I feel. I feel like I'm not just like everyone else. Like, we all work hard to be something and like, it pays off and people recognize it. So it feels good.

NEIGHMOND: Then, there's sociability - friends. Here's 17-year-old teammate Carly O'Sullivan.

CARLY O'SULLIVAN: I really don't care what other people think anymore. So I can be myself around anyone. And I think a lot of people, I've grown friendships with them because I really like myself.

NEIGHMOND: Both girls are on the Bogota High School volleyball team in northern New Jersey. And their experience gaining confidence and winning friends, illustrates just what researchers in the Netherlands found when they surveyed 7,000 Dutch students between the ages of 11 and 16. The study appeared in the journal "Clinical Psychological Science." Yale University child psychologist Alan Kazdin is editor. He says the findings show just how bountiful the benefits of exercise can be.

ALAN KAZDIN: I think it'd be too strong to call it an elixir, but it has the broad effects of something like that.

NEIGHMOND: In the study, teenagers who took part in organized sports had a more positive self-image, and greater self-esteem, than teens who weren't physically active. They were simply happier, says Kazdin; more grounded, and less likely to engage in problematic behavior.

KAZDIN: Like social withdrawal and anxiety, and also getting into trouble and being aggressive against others, and being overactive. Those things are lower with increased exercise.

NEIGHMOND: And that positive self-image extended into the classroom. Carly O'Sullivan.

CARLY: I think that my thoughts are more valuable now. And even if I have, like, the wrong answer, whatever, at least I'm making an effort to participate.

NEIGHMOND: The study also found those kids who are on teams had more friends. That could be the result of greater confidence, or simply the camaraderie of being on a team. Jennifer Ramirez.

JENNIFER: We're pretty much, like, a family. I could trust them; like, they're like my sisters. And that's what I really like.

NEIGHMOND: Jennifer and Carly's volleyball team has worked with sports psychology coach Greg Chertok. He says when it comes to being more sociable, the study findings are something of a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Does the exercise make teenagers more confident, or do more confident teenagers take part in sports?

GREG CHERTOK: I think that teenagers who have positive self-perceptions are more likely to test their mettle, and to insert themselves into competitive environments; and to insert themselves into mentally and physically demanding situations.

NEIGHMOND: Now, the findings don't mean every teenager should be on a sports team. Exercise in any form, says psychologist Kazdin, is well worth it. That could be a dance class or jogging, Wii sports - any physical activity. With school budget cuts, though, physical education is often the first thing to go; a big mistake, says Kazdin.

KAZDIN: Mental and physical health are enhanced by this. And this might be the first class you include in any school curriculum, rather than the one you get rid of. And you would do it even if you didn't like exercise because we know now that exercise enhances school academic performance.

NEIGHMOND: That, along with the social and emotional benefits found in this study, add up to a strong argument for teenagers to either take part in sports, or to commit themselves to some form of daily exercise.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.