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How Staying Physically Active Benefits Boys' Mental Health

Boys who stay active in middle childhood are less prone to emotional distress.

Key points

  • Staying physically active and participating in sports boosts psychological resilience during vital stages of childhood development.
  • Athletic engagement may be especially beneficial to boys' emotional well-being during early and middle childhood, a new study reports.
  • Boys who engage in regular physical activity from ages 5 to 12 are less likely to experience depressive symptoms during adolescence.
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New research from the University of Montreal suggests that boys who participate in sports and stay physically active during early childhood may alter their "emotional distress trajectories" in ways that make them less prone to generalized anxiety disorder and depression as they get older.

These peer-reviewed findings (Harbec et al., 2021) were published on September 27 in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Marie-Josée Harbec is the study's lead author.

Athletic Engagement Can Create an Upward Spiral for Kids

Regular physical activity and athletic engagement in either an individual or team sport appear to create an upward spiral for girls and boys during pivotal stages of childhood development.

However, boys may benefit more from sports activities and regular physical activity when it comes to offsetting their risk of emotional distress and avoiding the sedentary behaviors that often go hand in hand with crippling anxiety and major depressive disorders.

For example, boys who participate in sports during early childhood tend to experience less emotional distress during middle childhood, which appears to make them more likely to remain physically active during early adolescence, which fortifies their psychological resilience as tweens.

"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," senior author Linda Pagani said in a news release.

At the outset of this study, Pagani and Harbec had two objectives. First, the researchers wanted to clarify the long-term reciprocal relationship between physical activity and emotional distress trajectories in school-aged children. Second, they wanted to investigate if physical activity and sports participation from ages 5 to 12 affected emotional distress trajectories differently in boys and girls.

Researchers asked parents of 690 boys and 748 girls to fill out surveys designed to assess physical activity and sports participation during early and middle childhood. They also had teachers evaluate the level of emotional-distress symptoms observed in school from ages 6 to 10.

Physical Activity Affects Emotional Distress Trajectories Differently in Girls and Boys

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

"For girls, depression and anxiety risks and protective factors work differently," Harbec said. "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, boys who exhibited higher levels of depressive and anxious symptoms during middle childhood were subsequently less physically active at 12 years old. For girls, on the other hand, we did not find any significant changes," Pagani added.

Taken together, these findings suggest that promoting physical activity and sports engagement from a young age may be an effective way to enhance boys' psychological resilience and offset their risk of emotional distress during middle childhood. If emotional distress is minimized from ages 6 to 10, boys are more likely to stay active and less likely to experience anxiety and depressive symptoms during early adolescence.


Marie-Josée Harbec, Gary Goldfield, Tracie A. Barnett, Linda Pagani. "Physical Activity as Both Predictor and Outcome of Emotional Distress Trajectories in Middle Childhood." Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics (First published: September 27, 2021) DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000001005