From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published October 1, 2012 09:35 AM

The Scientific Connection of Mental Health and Physical Activity

Exercise is known for not only improving physical health, but also for improving mental health, such as alleviating depression or anxiety. A new scientific study from the Netherlands delves deep into the connection of exercise and mental health. The researchers explored if certain psychosocial factors may help explain the connection. The concept, psychosocial, refers to an individual's psychological development within, and interaction with, a social environment. The focus of the research study was on adolescents, an age group known for abundant psychosocial dysfunctions, such as negative perceptions of self-image and body weight.


The study was led by Karin Monshouwer of the Trimbos Institute. Monshouwer and colleages from Trimbos and VU University Medical Center aimed at examining two existing explanations connecting exercise and mental health.

One explanation, dubbed the self-image hypothesis, suggests that exercise leads to positive effects on body weight and body structure, which in turn leads to positive feedback from peers, improving one’s self image and ultimately their mental health.

The other explanation, known as the social interaction hypothesis, suggests that it is the social aspects of physical activity that contribute to the positive effects on mental health. This includes the social relationships built with fellow exercisers or team members.

Monshouwer and her team surveyed 7,000 Dutch students, age 11-16. They answered questions related to levels of physical activity, mental health problems, body weight perception, and participation in organized sports. Other factors taken into account include age, gender, socio-economic status, if the adolescents lived with their parents at home, and if they live in an urban environment.

The following conclusions were reached:

- Those who were physically inactive or perceived themselves as too fat or too thin, were at greater risk of internalizing their problems, such as depression and anxiety.

- These same people were also at a greater risk of externalizing problems through aggression and substance abuse.

- Those who participate in organized sports had a lower risk of mental health problems.

The results confirm the two existing explanations, the self-image and the social interaction hypothesis. They also suggest that psychosocial factors explain the connection between physical activity and mental health, at least in part. However, the researchers acknowledge that there are other forces at work which affect mental health.

"We think that these findings are important for policymakers and anyone who works in healthcare or prevention. Our findings indicate that physical activity may be one effective tool for the prevention of mental health problems in adolescence," says Monshouwer.

This study has been published in the journal, Clinical Psychological Science.

Physical Activity image via Shutterstock

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