A study led by researchers from the University of Queensland has revealed that children who engage in regular sports activities from an early age are more likely to enjoy better long-term mental health. The study, led by Associate Professor Asad Khan from UQ’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, analyzed data from over 4,200 Australian children spanning eight years as part of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.
The study found that consistent participation in sports, whether team-based (e.g., football, cricket, or netball) or individual (e.g., karate, tennis, or gymnastics), had a positive impact on mental health. However, children who played team sports experienced even greater benefits. The social aspects of team sports, such as supportive peer environments, opportunities for friendship, and working toward a common goal, were believed to contribute to these advantages.
In Australia, around 14 percent of children aged four to eleven experience mental disorders, with boys typically more affected than girls. The research found that children who tend to internalize their emotions and struggle with socialization with peers significantly benefit from participating in team sports.
While both boys and girls showed positive outcomes, the study noted a need to encourage more girls to engage in team sports, particularly at younger ages. At ages six and seven, approximately 59 percent of boys participated in team sports, compared to only 26 percent of girls. Boys who played team sports experienced fewer psychosocial difficulties and better health-related quality of life, while the benefits for girls were somewhat lower.
Several factors might explain the gender disparity in team sports involvement, including lower self-belief and confidence in sporting ability, the stereotype of team sports as male-dominated, limited opportunities for girls to participate, and a lack of diversity in sports offerings in schools and extracurricular programs.
The study’s findings suggest that promoting children’s sports participation and investigating the factors influencing girls’ engagement in team sports could be essential steps in improving children’s mental health. The research has been published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
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