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Psychological Effects of Exercise in Adolescents

Despite a widely held belief that the potential benefits of exercise on weight management are related to ‘burning’ calories, I recently proposed that the real effect of exercise is in helping regulate food intake.

This is because exercise directly affects many of the psychological and emotional factors that can drive overeating and promote weight gain.

A study by Goldfield and colleagues from the Children’s Hospital of Esatern Ontario in Ottawa, just published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, now examined the relationship between physical activity and psychological adjustments in adolescents.

The study included a total of 746 girls and 513 boys, who responded to surveys on leisure time physical activity, depressive symptoms, anxiety, and body image.

The researchers found a ‘dose-response’ relationship between the reported intensity of regular physical activity and psychological distress, in that those who performed greater bouts of vigorous exercise exhibited better psychological adjustment than adolescents engaging in mild to moderate intensity activity.

Interestingly, there were gender differences in this relationship: while vigorous physical activity was associated with less depression but not less anxiety in boys, girls with higher activity levels reported less anxiety but not less depression.

As readers may already guess, the main problem with interpreting the finding of this cross-sectional study is that it shows a relationship but cannot prove or even imply causality (a common mistake in the reporting of this type of study).

Thus, it could well be that boys with less depression and girls who are less anxious are the ones who participate more in vigorous physical activity and that treating depression and anxiety in boys and girls, respectively, would lead to increased physical activity.

It would, certainly take an intervention study before we can conclude that psychological function can indeed be improved by exercise.

Nevertheless, there are other intervention data that do suggest that regular physical activity can improve mental health including self-esteem and it is very likely that any such improvements may translate into better ingestive behaviours.

As suggested before, studies exploring the effect of physical activity on body weight should probably also carefully assess the impact of such activity on psychological factors and ingestive behaviours before equating any weight loss with the impact of exercise on ‘calories out’.

Edmonton, Alberta

Goldfield GS, Henderson K, Buchholz A, Obeid N, Nguyen H, & Flament MF (2011). Physical activity and psychological adjustment in adolescents. Journal of physical activity & health, 8 (2), 157-63 PMID: 21415442


  1. Very interesting.

    Please excuse me if I drift a bit from the topic at hand to comment on a related topic: physical education.

    Whether or not one believes that physical activity can have a real impact on weight, I think the jury *is* in on its many physical and psychological benefits. Yet the schools continue to “teach” phys ed in a way that dooms most students to a life of inactivity. Gifted athletes are rewarded with good marks and eventually even scholarships while the vast majority of students are made to feel incompetent, clumsy and unworthy. Quite quickly, they come to the conclusion that phys ed is a course to be dropped so that they can improve their average by taking courses where they shine, be it the sciences, modern languages, history, etc.

    Phys ed should be mandatory all the way up to high school graduation. But students should only receive a pass/fail mark based on attendance and participation. We must instill in our children a love of physical activity, be it skating, tobogganing, walking, biking, swimming, etc. Students who are actually athletically gifted could take courses designed especially to help them further their talents, but we MUST encourage everyone–no matter how clumsy or dumpy they are, no matter how slowly they run or how bad they are at jumping hurdles–to enjoy physical activity. This is impossible using the current model of phys ed in schools today.

    I truly believe that in a world where people are at least moderately physically active, to the best of their abilities (rather than reserving physical acitivity for the gifted few), levels of physical and emotional well-being will rise. As to whether everyone will look “fit and trim”, not so much, but that’s should not be the ultimate goal. The sequoias amongst us will continue to be tall and imposing and the little rose bushes will continue to be round and rosy.

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  2. Anxiety, depression, and obesity are all complex health issues with many different causes in different people. Depression in PTSD is different from non truamatic bi-polar mood disorder (which still has a large componant of deprssion). As I child I hated school I hated PE most of all even today trying to get physically active when there is nothing that needs donig is very hard for me. It should be noted that as a child I was not obese like I am now. Low self-esteem, anxiety, depression marked my childhood in most aspects–I think needing to ride the school bus was the worst part. Another problem I had was falling asleep therefore, I would lay in bed and dread beeing tired in the morning and needing to go to school. If there was a purgatory it was school i only just realize that the development of my obeseity coralated with my academic up grading which was not to thrilling either. But at least I can read and understand many things like your blog many of the books and articles that doctors can read and find out what the word I can not understand means via a little research.

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  3. I find this to be an interesting study; however, I do have a question related to self-efficacy. I work with several health education programs and one of the major issues we run into – both with our kids/teens and adults alike – is the issue of self-efficacy. The lower they rate in this area, the less likely they are to adhere to any program and the less likely they are to participate in any form of physical activity and most especially vigorous activity. I recently saw a study in the journal, Preventative Medicine, which examined the effects of a 10K steps program, a cumulative 30 min physical activity sessions, and a single 30 minute bout of exercise. In this study, the participants in all groups demonstrated decreased self-efficacy during the intervention. I’m wondering if addressing the self-efficacy not only increases adherence to exercise and helps individuals moderate food intake but that it is also a marker of other mental health indicators? If so, in what ways can we help to improve self-efficacy? I would love to have your thoughts with regards to this issue.

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  4. Phys ed doesn’t work in school in large part because the teachers only have time for the top athletes. The rest are left to their own devices or ridiculed which only makes the situation worse. Our society focuses way too much on “star” athletes and loses sight of the benefits of a simple walk in nature.

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