Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
The link between good physical health and mental health has long been understood as, at least, a symbiotic one. But has there been documented evidence that conclusively shows the association between an exercise regimen and mental health?
A new article in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, looks not only at the link between exercise and mental health, but also at any psychosocial factors that might help explain how daily physical activity benefits mental health for adolescents.
This research, conducted by Karin Monshouwer of the Trimbos Institute in the Netherlands, along with colleagues at Trimbos and VU University Medical Center, focused specifically on the two accepted explanations for the association between exercise and mental health. The first, the ℠self-image hypothesis´, suggests that physical activity has positive effects on both weight and physical structure. As these are in balance, the adolescent receives positive feedback from their peers which, in turn, leads to an improved self-image and thus, your mental health is improved. The second, known as the ℠social interaction hypothesis´, believes the social aspects of physical activity (social relationships, team association) contribute to the positive effects of exercise on an adolescents mental health.
The study by Monshouwer and her colleagues collected data from over 7000 Dutch students, all aged 11 to 16. Each participant completed surveys that were geared toward assessing their general physical activity, any mental health problems, body weight perception and their participation in any organized sport. Additionally, researchers collected data on the subjects´ age, gender and socioeconomic status.
Upon looking over the data, it was determined that those subjects who were physically inactive or who had negative body image issues were far more likely to exhibit internalization (depression, anxiety) and externalization (aggression, substance abuse) behaviors. Conversely, those subjects who participated in organized sport were far less likely to suffer from mental health problems.
Researchers believe that their study confirms, to some degree, both the ℠self-image hypothesis´ and the ℠social interaction hypothesis´, as body weight perception and sports club membership each partially accounted for the relationship between physical activity and mental health, even once the subjects backgrounds were taken into account.
The researchers do acknowledge that their study didn´t focus on the actual physiological effect of exercise on the human brain and that specific link to improved mental health. But they do believe their results, focusing almost primarily on psychosocial factors — body image and social interaction — may help to explain at least part of the connection between physical activity and mental health.
“We think that these findings are important for policymakers and anyone who works in healthcare or prevention. Our findings indicate that physical activity may be one effective tool for the prevention of mental health problems in adolescence,” says Monshouwer.
Monshouwer and her colleagues hope that future studies will be able to examine similar questions while following participants over time. Such longitudinal studies could help researchers to understand how physical activity type and context might influence the relationship between exercise and mental health.