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DCU research finds 4 out of 10 adolescents surveyed report symptoms of depression and anxiety


DUBLIN, Oct. 12, 2020 /PRNewswire/ — The Physical Activity and Wellbeing (PAWS) study published by Dublin City University exploring the association between physical activity and mental wellbeing in adolescents found that only 8% surveyed achieved the daily recommendation of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise and that four in every ten self-reported symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Previous studies have examined physical activity levels in adolescents in Ireland as well as the prevalence of mental health distress but this is the first study to explore the association between physical activity levels and mental health in the same cohort.

The study which included a nationwide survey of over 5,500 adolescents from 79 post-primary schools across Ireland between September and October 2019 found that of the 4 out of 10 adolescents who self-reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, 47% were females and 28% were males.

Adolescents in secondary schools across Ireland completed a number of questionnaires capturing physical activity levels, sports participation, mental wellbeing and symptoms of depression and anxiety as part of an online anonymous survey.

80% of adolescents reported playing one sport and 66% took part in team sports.

Those who engaged in sports were found to have higher levels of wellbeing and lower symptoms of anxiety and depression with team sports conferring an additional benefit.

70% of male adolescents took part in a team sport compared to 56% of females.

Levels of physical activity, among females, decreased as they got older and only 1% of sixth-year female students achieved the recommended physical activity guidelines per day. Overall, the study found that young males reported greater levels of wellbeing and lower symptoms of anxiety.

A fifth of adolescents did not take part in any activity, either individual or team-based.

Of note, 89% of adolescents identifying as non-gender reported high levels of anxiety and depression.

The research undertaken by Ph.D. student and PE teacher John Murphy and DCU academics Dr Bronagh McGrane (School of Arts Education and Movement) and Dr Mary Rose Sweeney (School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health) examined the associations between physical activity and mental health and wellbeing in adolescents.

The research concludes that physical activity recommendations for schools and community-based interventions should promote regular physical activity and engagement in individual or team sports to enhance wellbeing and positive mental health in adolescents.

Key Findings

  • Survey size: 5,661 adolescents from 79 post-primary schools (aged 11-20) in the Republic of Ireland. The number of schools taking part represents 11% of overall schools.
  • Survey demographics: 3247 (57%) females, 2386 (42%) males and 28 (0.5%) who identified as neither female nor male (referred to as “other” for the purposes of reporting) responded to the survey.
  • The frequency of activity was found to decline with age.
  • Frequency of activity was positively associated with wellbeing and negatively correlated with symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • The percentage of adolescents engaging in team sport declined from 1st year (76.7%) through 2nd (74.3%) and 3rd (66.7%) year before levelling off in 4th (58.4%), 5th (59.9%) and 6th year (59.8%).
  • Males had higher levels of wellbeing and lower symptoms of anxiety and depressive symptoms across all sub-groups.
  • Adolescents who engaged in sports were found to have higher levels of wellbeing and lower symptoms of anxiety and depression with team sport conferring an additional benefit.
  • In the total sample, 80% of adolescents reported playing at least one sport while 66% reported engaging in team sport with large sex differences (58% of females, 76% of males).
  • The findings emphasise the importance of increasing physical activity levels among adolescents who are least active.
  • There is a need to develop physical activity recommendations for mental as well as physical health, with a particular focus on the most appropriate context and not simply frequency, intensity, type or time.

Commenting on the findings, John Murphy said,

“The findings help us to narrow down the particular contexts that support and develop well being through physical activity. This research highlights the importance of young people remaining involved in sport throughout adolescence for both the physical and mental health benefits.”

Dr Bronagh McGrane said,

“While there are physical activity guidelines for physical health, the high levels of depression and anxiety symptoms in this study emphasises the need for physical activity guidelines for mental health. It also highlights the need for greater investment and resourcing to support adolescents in participating in sport and physical activity to improve both their physical and mental health.”

Dr Mary Rose Sweeney said,

“This research was conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic. As a society we need to increase the opportunities for young people to become more active. Funding for intervention research exploring the impact of different types and different intensities of physical activity on mental wellbeing in adolescents is needed, to explore whether increases in physical activity could be a viable alternative to pharmacological agents, increasingly being prescribed for adolescents.”

Notes To Editors

John Murphy, Dr Bronagh McGrane and Dr Mary Rose Sweeney are available for media comment on request to DCU Communications.

About The Research Team

Dr Mary Rose Sweeney is Head of the School of Nursing, Psychotherapy & Community Health at DCU and an Associate Professor in Health Systems Research. Mary Rose has been working in health related research for over 20 years and is particularly interested in health behaviour research. Follow Dr Sweeney @sweenema

Dr Bronagh McGrane is an Assistant Professor in Physical Education in the School of Arts Education and Movement.Her research areas include physical activity, school based interventions, fundamental movement skills, sport and well-being. Follow Dr McGrane @DrBMcGranePE

John Murphy is a PE Teacher at St Mary’s Secondary School, New Ross, Co Wexford. He is also a PhD researcher at the Institute of Education, DCU. His research interests include physical activity and mental health, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Follow John Murphy @fhsperformance

“Physical activity and sports participation in Irish teenagers and associations with anxiety, depression and mental wellbeing. Findings from the Physical Activity and Wellbeing (PAWS) Study.” is available to view in the Physical Activity and Health Journal at https://paahjournal.com/articles/10.5334/paah.58/ or http://doi.org/10.5334/paah.58 

The Warwick–Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS), Beck Anxiety Inventory and Beck’s Depression Inventory were the questionnaires used as part of the PAWS study.

SOURCE Dublin City University (DCU)


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