Physical Activity Eases Impact of Bullying in Teens

Fran Lowry

July 29, 2015

Physical activity may be a robust antidote to ward off sadness and suicidal thoughts in bullied adolescents.

In a survey of more than 13,000 youth in the United States, teens who said they exercised 4 to 5 days a week had less sadness, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts than those who exercised 1 or fewer days a week.

This protective effect of physical exercise extended to teens who reported that they had been bullied as well, according to Vermont researchers.

The study was published online July 17 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Mood Enhancing Effects

"It is well established that exercise and physical activity have robust antidepressive, anxiolytic, and mood-enhancing effects in both animal and human models, regardless of age, gender, and fitness," lead author Jeremy Sibold, EdD, told Medscape Medical News.

"Physical activity has been implicated as a salient preventative and treatment modality for a range of psychological issues that include, but are not limited to, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and addiction, and posttraumatic stress syndrome, in both healthy and clinical populations," Dr Sibold said.

"In fact, the efficacy of physical activity interventions has even approached, and surpassed, that of standard pharmacological and behavioral interventions in some trials," he said.

Dr Jeremy Sibold

"It became increasingly clear to us that physical activity may represent a safe, cost-effective intervention for the negative psychosocial consequences of bully victimization in school-age children," Dr Sibold said. "Given the substantial current focus on antibullying campaigns, it seemed to us that safe, cheap, and efficacious options are sorely needed to mitigate this growing problem. If we can prevent even one child from depression or self harm, this is worth it, hands down."

In the current study, Dr Sibold and his group analyzed data on 13,583 high school students from the 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a representative sample survey of public and private high school students in the United States.

Overall, 30.0% of students reported sadness for 2 or more weeks, 22.2% reported suicidal ideation, and 8.2% reported a suicide attempt in the previous 12 months.

After adjusting for age, sex, and race, bullied students were twice as likely to report feeling sad and three times as likely to report suicidal ideation or attempt as those who did not report having been bullied.

Physical exercise mediated these symptoms of depression.

Students who reported exercising 4 to 5 days per week had lower adjusted odds of sadness, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts than students who exercised 0 to 1 days per week (P < .0001).

The good effects of physical exercise were somewhat attenuated in bullied students but were still apparent. Engaging in physical activity for 4 or more days per week was associated with an approximately 23% reduction in suicidal ideation and attempt in bullied students.

"While observational in nature, if this is true, and replicated in prospective, randomized trials moving forward, physical activity in the form of exercise may represent a highly efficacious intervention that is readily available and accessible in the school-age population," Dr Sibold said.

"I do feel that, given the overall safety of physical activity and exercise for a majority of the population, that the medical arena can and should continue to support and recommend increased physical activity levels for children and adolescents for both physical and psychosocial benefits.

"Phys ed [physical education] is being reduced in many schools, our kids are progressively less active across time, and yet we literally may have a modality ― exercise ― that simultaneously addresses both the physical and psychological sequelae of many of these lifestyle and environmental threats," he said.

Innovative Study

"Regular exercise is an important, economical, and natural way to maintain physical and mental well being and may be particularly useful for individuals under stress, such as those being bullied," said Arshya Vahabzadeh, MD, from the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, when asked by Medscape Medical News to comment on this study.

"This innovative study shows a correlation between higher amounts of physical activity and decreased levels of sadness and suicidality in both bullied and nonbullied adolescents. However, the study methodology doesn't allow for the demonstration of causation, whether physical activity resulted in these changes, or whether these symptoms led to less physical activity," Dr Vahabzadeh said.

"While exercise may be important for improving adolescent mental health, adolescents who are experiencing suicidal thoughts should not attempt to control symptoms with exercise alone but should seek urgent psychiatric assessment and treatment," he added.

Dr Sibold and Dr Vahabzadeh report no relevant financial relationships.

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. Published July 17,2015. Abstract


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