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Team Sports in Teens May Fortify Mental Health of Adults who Suffered Childhood Neglect and Abuse

Children exposed to adversity are at increased risk of developing anxiety, depression and other health conditions when they become adults. As adults, their own children may be prone to similar difficulties. Experts exploring ways to break this cycle think that playing team sports may help adolescents build the resilience necessary to thwart these problems.

There is growing evidence that physical activity can ease symptoms of anxiety and depression in children during the period immediately following exercise. And some studies have suggested that organized team sports provide psychological and social benefits for school-age children and adolescents that individual sports or exercising alone do not. Indeed, the mental health benefits of playing sports as children may last into early adulthood.

But it is less clear whether or why youth sports might favorably influence the mental health of an adult who suffered childhood neglect. In a suggestive finding, a recent study reports that the advantage may stem from the psychological and social glow of team sports—from an athlete’s improved self-esteem and feelings of social acceptance and connection to the school.

Data from 4470 people over 20 years

The study, from researchers at UCLA and Kaiser Permanente of California, analyzed national data collected over the course of 20 years from 4470 men and women who were at risk of developing mental health problems as adults because they were abused or neglected as children. The authors looked at respondents’ data during four time periods spanning two decades, beginning in the 7th to 12th grade and ending at ages 24 to 32. They included only people who reported physical or sexual abuse or emotional neglect during their childhood or who said they lived with a parent who misused alcohol, went to prison or was single.

After they progressed through adolescence to young adulthood, some respondents were diagnosed with depression or anxiety or reported depressive symptoms. Compared to their peers who did not play team sports, adolescents who played team sports in the 7th through 12th grade were significantly less likely to develop anxiety or depression in their 20s and early 30s.

The type of sport did not matter, although sex did. While both men and women who played team sports had lower odds of developing anxiety, only men had fewer depression diagnoses and depressive symptoms.

It’s important to recognize that teens who played team sports were not completely free of anxiety and depression in adulthood. For example, the findings suggest that if 100 adults grow up in adverse circumstances, 17 will be diagnosed with anxiety if they do not play team sports in their teens. By comparison, five fewer—12 adults—will be diagnosed with anxiety if they do play team sports. The numbers are similar, but higher, for the risk of developing depression.

Why might team sports be protective?

The researchers examined a variety of factors to understand why team sports might protect these particular adolescents from mental health problems later in life. Three things stood out—school connectedness, self-esteem and feeling socially accepted. These mattered more than how much or how intensely kids exercised.

“Just encouraging children to exercise on their own may not be sufficient,” suggest the authors of an accompanying editorial. “Rather, the team atmosphere may enhance health outcomes.”

Alone, neither physical activity nor group activity provided similar protection. Kids who joined other school groups or teams—drama club, band or debate team, for example—had just as many mental health problems in early adulthood as other kids.

Previous research may help to explain this. “Through sports, children are physically active, which is a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle,” explain the editorial writers. “Children with [adverse childhood experiences] have less perceived resilience. The wins and losses of sports teach the emotional dexterity required for success in life, including resilience. These beneficial characteristics of sport participation may lead to better mental and social health” and other improvements, they suggest.

If team sports were a medicine dispensed to prevent a chronic disease, it would be considered about as effective as cholesterol-lowering drugs are for reducing the chance of a first heart attack or stroke. But studies like this can’t prove team sports were the reason fewer team athletes developed anxiety and depression later in life. Knowing which factors influence health is an inexact science, the editorial writers point out. Other, unmeasured factors—such as rising household income and economic status—likely also played a role in lessening the impact of adverse childhood experiences on the lives of these adults, they say.

Resource: Visit The Sport Institute’s Exercise Rx, a search tool for healthcare providers and the general public to quickly find free and low-cost exercise resources in their own communities or online.