May 29, 2019
2 min read

Team sports improve mental health of kids exposed to adversity

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Photo of Molly C. Easterlin, MD
Molly C. Easterlin

Research published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that children exposed to adverse childhood events, or ACEs, who participated in team sports as adolescents may be less likely to have diagnosed depression, anxiety or current depressive symptoms as adults.

“Some of the pathways between team sports participation and improved adult mental health were through improved feelings of self-esteem, social acceptance and connectedness to school,” study researcher Molly C. Easterlin, MD, a fellow in the National Clinician Scholars Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “Therefore, these factors may be resilience-building. These results suggest that children affected by ACEs may benefit from participating in team sports and other programs that provide psychosocial support.”

The researchers analyzed data from 9,668 people included in two waves (1994-1995 and 2008) of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. Participants were included in the analysis if they reported ACE exposure, including physical and sexual abuse, emotional neglect, parental alcohol misuse, parental incarceration and living with a single parent.

Nearly half (49.3%) of participants reported exposure to one or more ACEs, and 21.3% reported exposure to two or more, the researchers said.

Girls playing basketball 
Source: Shutterstock

To account for the possibility that children who participate in team sports are inherently different from those who do not, the researchers weighted their analyses for participation in team sports based on propensity scores. They found that those who participated in team sports as a teenager were significantly less likely to be diagnosed with depression (16.8% vs. 22%; adjusted OR = 0.76; 95% CI, 0.59-0.97) and anxiety (11.8% vs. 16.8%; aOR = 0.7; 95% CI, 0.56-0.89). Adults who played team sports as teenagers also were less likely to have current depressive symptoms compared with those exposed to ACEs but did not play team sports as teenagers, but this finding was not statistically significant in fully adjusted analyses (21.9% vs. 27.5%; aOR = 0.85; 95% CI, 0.71-1.01).

Easterlin and colleagues found no differences in mental health outcomes by sex in relation to team sports participation and mental health. However, boys were less likely to have depression (aOR = 0.67; 95% CI, 0.46-0.99), anxiety (aOR = 0.66; 95% CI, 0.45-0.96) and depressive symptoms (aOR = 0.75; 95% CI, 0.56-0.99), whereas girls were less likely to receive an anxiety diagnosis only (aOR = 0.73; 95% CI, 0.54-0.98).

Easterlin said that based on these findings, pediatricians may want to recommend team sports participation for patients exposed to ACEs to support their long-term mental health.

“For patients less inclined to play team sports, pediatricians and other health care professionals could recommend school or community programs that target feelings of self-esteem, social acceptance and connection to school,” she said. “Additionally, more broadly, pediatricians and other health care professionals should use this information to advocate for making team sports programs at the school and community level accessible to all children, equitable and strong.” – by Katherine Bortz

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.