Boys who participate in sports in early childhood are less likely to experience depressive symptoms

Play ball! (It’s good for you)


A new study highlights the relationship in school-aged children between participation in sports and emotional distress in middle childhood. It suggests that boys who participate in sports in early childhood are less likely to experience depressive and anxiety symptoms later.

The study by the scientists from the University of Montreal also highlights that boys who are physically active during early adolescence tend to experience less emotional distress in middle childhood.

Université de Montréal psychoeducator Marie-Josée Harbe said, “We also wanted to examine whether this relationship worked differently in boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 12.”

“There’s widespread evidence of a crisis these days in childhood physical inactivity, and this may ultimately have implications for later mental and physical health.”

For the study, scientists collaborated with the scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. They examined data from a Quebec cohort of kids born in 1997 and 1998, part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development done by Institut de la Statistique du Québec.

Scientists examined kids’ sporting and physical activity habits at ages 5 and 12 years. Those habits were reported by the kids and their parents as well. Later, they looked at the symptoms of emotional distress from ages 6 to 10 years reported by the kids’ teachers.

They found that boys who never participated in sports at the age of 5 tend to look unhappy and tired between 6 and 10. Also, such kids were found to had difficulty having fun. They cried a lot and appeared fearful or worried.

Boys who exhibited higher depressive and anxious symptoms during middle childhood were subsequently less physically active at 12 years old. No significant changes were observed in the case of girls.

The data were stratified by sex to identify any significant link between physical activity and emotional distress.

Harbe said, “Our goal was to eliminate any pre-existing conditions of the children or families that could throw a different light on our results, such as child temperament, parental education, or family income.”

“Boys who engage in sport in preschool might benefit from physical activities that help them develop life skills such as taking the initiative, engaging in teamwork and practicing self-control, and build supportive relationships with their peers and adult coaches and instructors.”

“Conversely, boys who experience symptoms of depression and anxiety might be more socially isolated, and have a decreased level of energy and lower feelings of competence, which could in turn negatively influence engagement in physical activity.”

“For girls, depression and anxiety risks and protective factors work differently. Girls are more likely than boys to seek help from and disclose emotional distress to family, friends or health providers, and psychological support from these social ties protects them better.”

“Also, because more girls experience emotional distress than boys, this gender-related risk may have led to early identification and intervention for girls, and so protect them from further damage.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Physical activity as both predictor and outcome of emotional distress trajectories in middle childhood’,” by Marie-Josée Harbec et al., was published Sept. 27, 2021, in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.
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