10 Scientifically Validated Mental Benefits of Sports
Scientists have been exploring the link between exercise and mood for more than 100 years. As a result, they have produced a large body of research on physical activity and mental health, including the link between sports and mental health. Both biological and psychological factors come into play.
Here are 10 mental benefits of sports validated by research:
Exercise positively impacts levels of serotonin, a chemical that helps regulate mental health, and stimulates the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which improves mood.
Physical activity releases endorphins, the body’s natural “happy chemicals,” and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Sports are associated with lower rates of stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal behavior.
Participation in team sports reduces the risk of teen substance abuse and other reckless behaviors.
Team sports enhance resilience, empathy, confidence and empowerment.
They have also been shown to increase executive functioning, creativity, cognitive development, and self-regulation.
Improved teamwork and social responsibility
Better well-being for teens with disabilities
Teen sports, as well as other outdoor activities, get teens outside so they can experience the benefits of time in nature.
Sleep improves when teens are physically active—which is important because sleep is essential for maintaining mental health.
In fact, research shows that sports and other types of physical activity can be equally as effective as medication in improving teen mental health and happiness levels.
Teen Depression and Physical Activity
Let’s take a closer look at the research on teen sports and mental health in the area of teen depression. Most recently, a 2021 study involving data from 70,000 high school students found a direct link between sport and mental health. Moreover, research shows that team sports may be more supportive for mental health than individual sports: One study found that youth athletes in individual sports were almost twice as likely to report symptoms of depression (13 percent vs. 7 percent).
Another study showed that physical activity can be as effective as antidepressants. Researchers divided participants with depression into three groups. One group took part in an exercise program, one group took an antidepressant, and third group exercised and also took medication. After 16 weeks, depression had eased in all three groups. However, a follow-up study, done six months later, found that the effects of exercise actually lasted longer than those of antidepressants.
“Physical exercise has direct effects on the biology and psychology of depression. Exercise increases levels of neurotransmitters that may sometimes be depleted and releases relaxing and pleasure-inducing endorphins. Exercising, we discover that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness begin to fade.” —James S. Gordon, author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression
To Ward Off Anxiety, Get Moving
In addition to protecting teens from depression, physical exercise such as team sports has been shown to decrease symptoms of anxiety. In a study of college students, those who were physically active reported higher levels of excitement and enthusiasm as compared to those who were less active. In another study, researchers found that people who got regular vigorous exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop an anxiety disorder over the next five years.
“Single sessions of activity reduce anxiety, improve mood, and raise feelings of energy that last for several hours. Long-term participation can significantly improve conditions such as clinical anxiety and depression to a degree that rivals medication, both in adults and adolescents.” —Jack Raglin, PhD, Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University-Bloomington
How Exercise Prevents Substance Use Disorder
Not only do sports reduce stress and keep anxiety and depression at bay, research shows that regular exercise can help people recover from substance use disorder, and stay in recovery long term. Scientists are still looking closely at the neurobiological underpinnings of this discovery. Moreover, they are examining its ramifications for treatment. Essentially, physical activity, such as teen athletics, provides a healthy reward for the brain.
Specifically, addictive drugs stimulate the brain’s reward system. They do this by catalyzing a powerful surge of the pleasure hormone dopamine. Finding healthy ways to increase dopamine is key to successful recovery. This is especially true in the early days of recovery, when withdrawal cravings can be intense.
Evidence shows that exercise can be used as an alternative reward for the body and brain. As a result, staying sober is easier. Teen sports can pave the way.
The Long-Term Mental Benefits of Sports
In addition to the immediate mental benefits of sports, playing team sports in high school appears to predict better mental health later in life. A 2019 study tested this theory on close to 10,000 participants, about half of whom experienced childhood trauma. They found that individuals with a history of trauma had a significantly lower chance of being diagnosed with depression or anxiety if they had participated in team sports as adolescents.
Another study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that students who play team sports in grades 8 through 12 have less stress and better mental health as young adults. In the study, 850 students from 10 Canadian schools were surveyed about their participation in school sports, such as basketball, soccer, track and field, wrestling, and gymnastics.
Three years after graduation, researchers followed up with the participants. They found that youth who were involved in school sports had lower depression symptoms, lower perceived stress, and better self-rated mental health than those who did not play sports at all. The study authors concluded that playing high school sports protected young people from poor mental health four years later.
According to study co-author Catherine Sabiston, PhD, of the University of Toronto, “Team sports offer a heightened emphasis on group goals, social support, and sense of connection that provide more opportunity for learning adaptive coping strategies that can be essential for long-term mental health.”
When Teen Treatment Is Needed
Teen sports offer multiple benefits for mental health. Ultimately, supporting teens to play sports will give them a strong foundation for physical and mental well-being.
However, the mental benefits of sports may not be enough support for every adolescent. If physical activity and other lifestyle changes aren’t helping with symptoms of depression or anxiety, it’s essential to seek treatment before the problem escalates.
At Newport Academy, our specialized care for adolescents includes evidence-based experiential modalities that incorporate the mental benefits of sports—such as Adventure Therapy, Mixed Martial Arts, and physical fitness activities. In addition, individual and family therapy sessions support teens to heal the trauma and attachment wounds that catalyze depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other co-occurring disorders.
Courtesy of Newport Academy