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Study Demonstrates Positive Impact of Youth Sports on Mental Health

12 Jun, 2019

By: Michael Popke
Unfortunately, Those Who Need it Most Are Being Left Out

There already are so many reasons to support effective youth sports programs. Now here’s one more: A  new study suggests that participation in team sports as adolescents can result in a lower likelihood of depression or anxiety as adults — especially in males.

For more than a decade, researchers followed 4,888 teens with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — such as witnessing parents go through a divorce, having a parent with a mental illness or substance abuse problem, or suffering from sexual, physical or emotional abuse — which have been linked to wear and tear on the body that can lead to physical and mental health problems. They also followed 4,780 teens without ACE exposure.

Those teens who played team sports had 24 percent lower odds of receiving a depression diagnosis by young adulthood and 30 percent lower odds of receiving an anxiety diagnosis, according to the study. The results recently were published in JAMA Pediatrics.

“Our data indicate that team sports participation in adolescence may be associated with better mental health outcomes in adulthood due to increased self-esteem, increased feelings of social acceptance and feeling more connected to the school environment,” lead study author Molly Easterlin of the University of California Los Angeles and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told Reuters. “[Sports] may change how kids navigate school or develop relationships. It may make them more resilient.”

“[Team sports] could be a low-hanging fruit to address mental health outcomes,” added Amanda Paluch, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, who wrote an editorial about the study for JAMA Pediatrics. “Something that is so enjoyable ... could be an important part of every kid’s life.”

Unfortunately, as Easterlin and Paluch explained to National Public Radio, the growing cost of team sports means that those who might need them most are least likely to participate.

“Less money, increasingly, has meant reduced access to sports and physical activity in the U.S.,” Susie Neilson wrote on NPR.org. “According to a 2018 report by the Aspen Institute, kids from families with household incomes less than $50,000 a year have reduced their sports participation over the past decade, while white kids from wealthier households have increased participation. Kids from lower-income brackets participate in team sports at half the rate of their wealthier peers.

“To address this lack of access, Paluch and Easterlin say, policymakers and child health advocates should find ways to boost sports participation for kids, particularly those most at risk of childhood trauma,” Neilson continues. “About half of American kids report some kind of ACE; conversely, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, often contributing to other diseases both physical and mental.”

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