11:27pm Saturday 18 November 2017

Overweight teens get mental health boost from even small amounts of exercise

“In my practice, the first thing I tell teens struggling with their weight and their parents is to throw away the scale,” said Dr. Gary Goldfield. “These kids face enough challenges with bullying and peer pressure today! This new study is proof positive that even a modest dose of exercise is prescriptive for a mental health boost.”

Thirty adolescents aged 12-17 years old were randomized to twice weekly laboratory-based sessions of stationary cycling to music of their own choice or to an interactive video game of their own choice for a 10-week trial. All exercise was supervised and performed at a light to moderate intensity. The music or interactive video game was used as a form of distraction from any perceived discomfort during the exercise, but participants could stop when they chose at any time during a 60‑minute session. The teens then self-reported on measures of psychosocial functioning that included scholastic competence, social competence, athletic competence, body image, and self‑esteem.

Although few physical differences emerged between the exercise groups over time, the teens did self-report improvements in perceived scholastic competence, social competence, and several markers of body image including appearance esteem and weight esteem.  According to Dr. Goldfield (citing related research), exercise induced improvements in body image and perceived social and academic functioning are psychologically empowering and may help buffer against some of the weight-based teasing and discrimination and bias that is often inflicted on obese kids and that can have devastating effects on their emotional well-being.

“We’re talking about psychological benefits derived from improved fitness resulting from modest amount of aerobic exercise– not a change in weight or body fat.” continued Dr. Goldfield. “If you can improve your physical activity and fitness even minimally, it can help improve your mental health. By teaching kids to focus on healthy active lifestyle behaviours, they are focusing on something they can control.”

This study was funded by the Canadian Diabetes Association and the CHEO Research Institute.

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