Physical Fitness Linked to Better Mental Health in Young People

Physical fitness among children and adolescents may protect against developing depressive symptoms, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to a study published on Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.

The study also found that better performance in cardiovascular activities, strength and muscular endurance were each associated with greater protection against such mental health conditions. The researchers deemed this linkage “dose-dependent”, suggesting that a child or adolescent who is more fit may be accordingly less likely to experience the onset of a mental health disorder.

These findings come amid a surge of mental health diagnoses among children and adolescents, in the United States and abroad, that have prompted efforts to understand and curb the problem.

In a study, improved performance with activities such as 800-meter runs, curl-ups and standing jumps was linked with lower risk of mental health disorder.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

The Study

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

The risk of mental health disorder was weighted against three metrics for physical fitness: cardio fitness, as measured by a student’s time in an 800-meter run; muscle endurance, indicated by the number of situps performed; and muscle power, measured by the standing broad jump.

Improved performance in each activity was linked with a lower risk of mental health disorder. For instance, a 30-second decrease in 800-meter time was associated, in girls, with a lower risk of anxiety, depression and A.D.H.D. In boys, it was associated with lower anxiety and risk of the disorder.

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