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Get Moving: The Benefits of Exercise for Teen Mental Health

ONE OF THE BEST THINGS that parents can do for their kids is help them build an exercise habit. That might mean dance, yoga, hiking or high school athletics. It should be something they really enjoy, so they're inspired to keep doing it.

Why is exercise so essential for teens? Because physical activity has significant benefits for teen mental health, according to a large body of research. In fact, exercise can even be as effective as antidepressants. And, on the flip side, physical inactivity is associated with the development of psychological disorders.

Studies show that exercise has the following benefits for teen mental health:

  • Positively impacts levels of serotonin, a chemical that helps regulate mental health.

  • Releases endorphins, the body's natural "happy chemicals."

  • Lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol .

  • Stimulates the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which improves mood.

  • Increases self-esteem and body positivity.

  • Helps teens sleep better.

Evidence shows that teen athletics are particularly supportive, on a number of levels.

According to a Canadian study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, students who play team sports in grades eight through 12 have less stress and depression as young adults. Teens who play sports also gain confidence, critical-thinking and judgment skills, as well as increased cognitive function.

However, just about any type of physical exercise is beneficial. In a small study of a dozen young adults at the University of Newcastle in Australia, participants with major depressive disorder exercised regularly; after 12 weeks of exercise, 10 of the participants were no longer categorized as depressed. Regular exercise has also been shown to decrease symptoms of anxiety.

And the effects are long-lasting: In one study, researchers found that people who got regular vigorous exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.

According to James S. Gordon, author of "Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression," "Physical exercise has direct effects on the biology and psychology of depression. … Exercising, we discover that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness begin to fade."

Another important benefit for teens: Exercise prevents substance use disorder.

As well as keeping anxiety and depression at bay, physical activity helps fight addiction. Research on lab rats and mice shows that regular exercise reduces the inclination to use drugs and alcohol. In essence, physical activity provides a healthy alternative reward for the brain, catalyzing a powerful surge of dopamine. And finding healthy ways to increase dopamine is key to successful recovery, especially in the early stages.

Additionally, exercise combats addiction because it addresses two of the major motivators for substance and alcohol abuse: depression and anxiety. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teens who have substance use disorder are roughly twice as likely to have mood and anxiety disorders compared with the general population, and those with mood and anxiety disorders are more likely to use drugs. State of mind is intimately linked with substance use.

However, there are risks associated with teen sports.

When teen athletes feel pressured to overachieve in sports, they sometimes turn to performance-enhancing drugs. In the federal government's annual Monitoring the Future study, researchers examined the use of performance-enhancing substances among 67,000 high school students. Overall, close to 7 percent of students reported trying anabolic steroids at least once – an increase from 2012, when it was 5 percent.

In addition, doctors often prescribe medication for sports injuries, which can lead to addiction, causing serious health problems and even death. Therefore, coaches, doctors and parents need to monitor teen athletes closely, and be vigilant about avoiding addictive methods of pain relief for injured teens.

Researchers say that how often we exercise is more important for mental health than how vigorously we exercise.

"Data regarding the positive mood effects of exercise involvement, independent of fitness gains, suggest that the focus should be on frequency of exercise rather than duration or intensity," say Lynette Craft and Frank Perna, authors of a review of research on the benefits of exercise for clinical depression. According to experts, teens who do some sort of physical activity three to five times a week, for at least 30 minutes, can reap mental health benefits.

Bottom line: Encouraging teens to get moving is worth the extra time, money or driving that teen exercise or athletics might require from parents. Ultimately, it will give them a strong foundation for physical and mental well-being for the rest of their lives. Courtesy of U.S. News


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