June 14, 2024

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The 10 Mental Benefits of Sports for Teens

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The number of adolescents with mental health conditions is on the rise across the country, with nearly half of tenagers feeling sad and hopeless. As a parent of an adolescent, this data might leave you feeling a little helpless, especially as you navigate this challenging stage of growth and development.

But there is good news. Supporting your teen’s mental health could be as simple as encouraging them to take up a sport. Numerous studies show the link between teen sports and improved mental health, higher self-esteem, reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, and much more. Plus, your child reaps the added physical benefits of regular exercise. Read on to learn all the benefits of teen sports.


Key Takeaways

  • Studies show that exercise can be as effective as medication in improving teen mental health and happiness levels.
  • Physical activity raises the level of natural chemicals in the brain that affect emotional regulation and mood.
  • Team sports improve interpersonal resources such as empathy, confidence, and responsibility.
  • Exercise can help a teen avoid or recover from substance use disorder because it stimulates similar parts of the brain’s reward system.

Why Adolescent Mental Health Matters

The teen mental health crisis has not abated. In fact, one study showed that 42 percent of students surveyed “felt persistently sad or hopeless.” And another survey revealed that 5 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 experienced at least one major depressive episode.

Why is developing and maintaining positive mental health essential in adolescence? Not only can poor mental health result in poor grades, strained family relationships, and an overall gloomy outlook on life, many of these behaviors that develop in adolescence carry over into adulthood.

Additionally, mental health problems in young people often co-occur with other health and behavioral risks. These can include drug or alcohol misuse, or risky sexual behaviors that can result in STDs or an unintended pregnancy.

How to Support Teen Mental Health

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says helping adolescents maintain positive mental health comes down to the following:

  • Helping students feel connected to school/family
  • Building bonds and relationships with adults and friends at school
  • Letting young people know someone cares about them

Involvement in teen athletics contributes to all of these outcomes and more. Let’s explore more science-backed ways sports have a positive influence on teen mental health.

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:

  1. Exercise positively impacts levels of serotonin, a chemical that helps regulate mental health, and stimulates the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which improves mood.
  2. Physical activity releases endorphins, the body’s natural “happy chemicals,” and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
  3. Sports are associated with lower rates of stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal behavior.
  4. Participation in team sports reduces the risk of teen substance abuse and other reckless behaviors.
  5. Team sports enhance resilience, empathy, confidence and empowerment.
  6. They have also been shown to increase executive functioning, creativity, cognitive development, and self-regulation.
  7. Improved teamwork and social responsibility are additional benefits of team sports for mental health.
  8. The more time spent being physically active, the less time a teen spends on social media, which is proven to lower adolescent well-being.
  9. Teen sports, as well as other outdoor activities, get teens outside so they can experience the benefits of time in nature.
  10. Sleep improves when teens are physically active—which is important because sleep is essential for maintaining mental health.

What Are the Additional Benefits of Playing a Sport?

In addition to reducing stress and anxiety, regular exercise improves physical health, thereby boosting teens’ self-esteem and self-confidence.

Teams sports offer a way for teens to connect and bond with others in their age group with similar interests. Being part of a team helps teens build critical skills that carry through to adulthood, such as goal setting, critical thinking, working collaboratively with others.

Multiple studies show that adolescent and teen sports correlate with higher grades. An analysis of 4,746 middle and high school students found that increasing their activity levels from less than 2.5 hours per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise to 7 hours per week was associated with a 5.7 percent to 9.1 percent increase in the students’ grades.

Physical activity is often prescribed as an affordable, self-sustaining way to prevent and manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. A 2021 study involving data from 70,000 high school students found a direct link between sport and mental health. Adolescents involved in a sport saw improvements in sleep, self-esteem, and psychological distress.

Moreover, research shows that team sports may be more supportive for athletes’ mental health than individual sports: One study found that young athletes in individual sports were almost twice as likely to report symptoms of depression (13 percent vs. 7 percent).

The Pandemic Impact on Sports and Mental Health

Perhaps nothing shed more light on the benefits of teen sports on mental health than the lack of sports during the pandemic. The abrupt shutdown of sports organizations during COVID had a profound effect on adolescents’ mental health.

One report showed that adolescents showed worsened signs of depression, anxiety, anger, sleep, and quality of life, especially those who played team sports. Girls experienced these symptoms as a higher rate than boys, and the impact was also higher on those low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Is Exercise as Effective as Medicine?

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.

Rollerblade ambassador Javi Garrido was inspired to give back and mentor young athletes because of the impact the sport had on her as a child. She said skating “helped me overcome a challenging childhood, pull myself out of depression, and taught me a path of constant self-improvement.”

“When I see a student overcome themselves or relax and enjoy something that used to cause them so much frustration, I feel completely fulfilled,” she said. “It’s also because I know that as human beings, we learn tools that we later apply to our lives.”

To Ward Off Anxiety, Get Moving

In addition to reducing symptoms of 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, Indiana University-Bloomington

How Exercise Supports Recovery from 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 abuse 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.”

Is My Child Ready for Youth Sports?

Now that you know the benefits of sports and mental health, you may be wondering “How do I know if my child is ready?” While children develop at different rates, pediatricians often recommend age 6 as a good age to begin an organized sport. By this time, children should have basic motor skills in place such as running, throwing, and jumping.

If your child is having difficulty with any of these skills it may be good to practice at home to ensure they are ready, as they will need to combine these skills in a sport setting. Enrolling a child in a sport that requires skills beyond their developmental ability can leave them frustrated and unwilling to try. While sports can be incredibly beneficial for your child, the best outcomes happen when they’re also enjoying the activity.

When Sports Are Not Enough, Seek Treatment

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, anxiety, or other mental health issues, it’s essential to seek treatment before the problem escalates.

Teen Mental Healthcare at Newport Academy

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, psychiatric care, medication management, and individual and family therapy sessions support teens to heal the trauma and attachment wounds that catalyze depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and other co-occurring disorders.

Contact us today to learn more about how we guide teens and families to sustainable healing.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do sports affect mental health?

Sports improve mental health by affecting levels of naturally occurring brain chemicals that regulate mood and emotions. Physical activity also reduces the effects of stress and promotes sleep, both known factors in maintaining good mental health. Moreover, participation in team sports develops personal qualities and social skills that support a young person’s sense of well-being.

Do team sports improve mental health?

Studies show that teens who participate in team sports are less likely to experience mental health challenges later in life than those who participate in individual sports. However, any form of activity is better for mental health than no activity.

How does sports affect the brain?

Physical exercise increases blood flow to the brain, stimulating the growth of new neurons and flushing away brain chemicals associated with stress. Moreover, it prompts the body to release chemicals associated with feeling good.

What can cause depression in athletes?

For competitive athletes, there is intense pressure to win, which can cause them to be self-critical. Striving for perfection can lead athletes to overtrain and sustain injury, a leading cause of depression in athletes.

Sources:

J Clinical Sports Psychol. 2021: 15(3): 268–287.
J Sports Science Med. 2019 Aug 1;18(3):490–496.
JAMA Pediatr. 2019; 173(7): 681–688. 
Adolesc Health. 2014 Nov; 55(5): 640–4.

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