Sports participation and emotional wellbeing in adolescents

Lancet. 1996 Jun 29;347(9018):1789-92. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(96)91616-5.


Background: Regular physical activity may have psychological benefits. Our study assessed the association between extent of participation in regular sport or vigorous recreational activity and emotional wellbeing in adolescents aged 16 years.

Methods: Data were collected from a cohort of adolescents, born between April 5 and April 11, 1970, in England, Scotland, and Wales, who took part in the follow-up assessment at age 16 years. Emotional wellbeing was assessed by the general health questionnaire (GHQ) and the malaise inventory (divided into psychological and somatic subscales). Information was obtained about participation in ten team and 25 individual sports and vigorous recreational activities during the previous year. Non-vigorous recreations, such as darts and snooker, were assessed separately. Social class and health status (recent illness and use of hospital services) were included in our analyses as possible confounding factors. 2223 boys and 2838 girls with a mean age of 16.3 years (SD 0.38) were included in our analysis. Statistical analysis was by multiple linear and logistic regression.

Findings: The sport and vigorous recreational activity index was positively associated with emotional wellbeing independently of sex, social class, health status, and use of hospital services. These associations were significant for the psychological symptom subscale of the malaise inventory (regression coefficient -0.024, 95 percent Cl -0.036 to -0.011, p<0.001) and the GHQ (odds ratio of emotional distress per unit increase in vigorous physical activity 0.992, 95 percent Cl 0.985-0.998, p<O.O1). By contrast, participation in non-vigorous activities was associated with high psychological and somatic symptoms on the malaise inventory.

Interpretation: We conclude that emotional wellbeing is positively associated with extent of participation in sport and vigorous recreational activity among adolescents. Although causal associations cannot be assumed in this cross-sectional analysis, our results are consistent with experimental evidence that vigorous exercise has favourable effects on emotional state.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Cohort Studies
  • Exercise / psychology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health*
  • Psychology, Adolescent*
  • Recreation / psychology
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Class
  • Sports / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United Kingdom