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Are sports good for the mental health of children?

News round-up / by Conor D'Andrade

Previous research investigating the effects of participating in organised sports on children's mental health has been inconsistent, with most results finding it protects against developing mental health problems and others finding that it can worsen mental health.

Now, a new large-scale study of 11,235 children aged 9 to 13 from the U.S, may begin to answer for this discrepancy in results.

The study consisted of parents completing the Child Behavior Checklist to assess several aspects of their child’s mental health, which researchers then analysed to look for any relationships between the children’s sporting habits and mental health, while controlling for other variables that could impact mental health, such as their parent’s income.

It was found that children that participated in organised team sports were significantly less likely to show symptoms of depression, anxiety, attentional difficulties, social difficulties and withdrawal.

However, children who participated in organised solo sports, such as tennis or wrestling, were also significantly more likely to show signs of these mental health problems, even when compared to children that did not participate in any organised sports.

This study adds to the growing evidence that team sports are great for mental health, while also highlighting the complex relationship between exercise and mental health.

Eating disorders rife among female professional footballers

A study of 115 women from England’s top two professional football leagues – the Women’s Super League (WSL) and Women’s Championship – has found that 36% of participants displayed eating disorder symptoms.

The study measured player and personal characteristics through an anonymous questionnaire, and required participants to complete clinical measures for eating disorders, depression and anxiety.

While the levels of depression and anxiety measured among the footballers were similar to levels of the general population at 11%, the number of eating disorders recorded among female footballers compared to the general population was significantly higher.

Furthermore, the study found that 86% wanted clinical help at some point throughout their career, while 90% felt that some form of psychological assistance could enhance their career.

“It is critical that football clubs encourage help-seeking behaviours," said Carl Perry, lead author of the study. "Highly disordered eating scores were not associated with currently needing psychological support, we believe this finding warrants further investigation as this could indicate that disordered eating symptoms are not self-recognised. Instead, it’s possible they are normalised in the footballers’ sporting environment.

“In addition to the increased stress that elite athletes faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, we speculate that the new demands placed upon elite female football (e.g. media roles, fan engagement, sponsorship and commercial partnerships) resulting from the rapid professionalisation of women’s football in England increased anxiety symptoms.”

Concerns raised over rising eating disorder rates among young people

Sharon White, the chief executive of the School and Public Health Nurses Association (SAPHNA), has raised concerns over the alarming rise in eating disorders among children and young people, and the long waiting lists for services that lead to a “worsening” condition.

The NHS Confederation, which represents trusts from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has reported an average 72% increase in the number of children and young people (CYP) being referred for urgent help in treating eating disorders.

In an attempt to help the situation, SAPHNA has released a series of training webinars aimed at helping school nurses with children experiencing an eating disorder.

“School nurses are indeed witnessing an exponential rise in CYP developing eating disorders, as well as a range of mental health problems, although school nurses can offer invaluable support at a universal level, many CYP are worsening as they have lengthy waits for the specialist help they need," said White.


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