Exercise Boosts Obese Teens' Mental Health

Megan Brooks

October 05, 2012

October 5, 2012 — Overweight or obese adolescents who engage in a modest amount of aerobic exercise — about 2 hours per week — at moderate intensity are apt to feel better about themselves, even in the absence of weight loss or changes in body fat, a new study suggests.

"In fact, improved aerobic fitness from the exercise was a much better predictor of psychosocial benefits than weight loss or reductions in body fat," said Gary Goldfield, PhD, clinical scientist with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity (HALO) Research Group at Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Research Institute in Ottawa, Canada.

Dr. Gary Goldfield

According to investigators, the findings have important implications for overweight and obese adolescents who are at high risk for psychopathology due to teasing, bullying, and discrimination on the basis of their weight.

"I think the take-home message is empowering; clinicians now have evidence to say, 'Throw away the scale and get out there and start moving, and the activity can improve your emotional well-being even if it does not lead to any measurable change in weight or body fat,' " Dr. Goldfield told Medscape Medical News.

The study was published online September 30 in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

Sense of Control

Thirty predominantly obese adolescents aged 12 to 17 years were randomly allocated to 10 weeks of twice-weekly laboratory-based sessions (about 1 hour per session) of stationary cycling to music or an interactive video game of their own choice.

The video gamers used the GameBike (Cat Eye Electronics Ltd, Boulder, Colorado) system interfaced with a Sony Play Station 2 (Sony Computer Entertainment America, Foster City, California). Dr. Goldfield said they deliberately chose exercises that heavy adolescents could do at home "since many are too self-conscious to go to the gym or exercise in public."

At baseline, the exercise groups were well matched in terms of demographic, anthropometric, and psychosocial variables. Twenty-six participants (13 in each group) completed the 10-week study, earning a $20 gift card to a movie theater in the process.

"We were hoping that both [exercises] would enhance both physiological and psychological health, and that's what the findings showed — virtually no differences between exercise modalities," he added.

On the Self-Perception Profile for Adolescents (SPPA), significant improvements over baseline were evident in perceived scholastic competence (P = .043) and social acceptance (P = .016).

On the Body Esteem Scale for Adolescents and Adults (BESSA), significant improvements in body image were seen, including appearance esteem (P = .004) and weight esteem (P = .002).

Correlational analyses indicated that the psychological benefits were related to improved aerobic fitness, not to changes in weight or body fat, the researchers note.

"Taken together, our findings are consistent with public health guidelines that call for increased physical activity and fitness among children and youth which have been shown to independently enhance physical and psychosocial health without weight loss," they write.

"Moreover, focusing intervention on healthy active living behaviors to promote even modest improvements in fitness rather than focusing on weight loss as the primary outcome may be particularly beneficial for clinicians given sustained weight loss over the long term is difficult to achieve for most obese adolescents," they add.

"By teaching kids to focus on healthy, active lifestyle behaviors, they are focusing on something they can control," said Dr. Goldfield.

The study was funded by the Canadian Diabetes Association and the CHEO Research Institute. The authors have disclosursed no relevant financial relationships.

J Pediatr Psychol. Published online September 30, 2012. Abstract