Can team sports combat depression?

Many of our posts have praised the virtues of regular physical activity on our cognitive health. This new research carried out at Washington University in Saint Louis highlights a potential link between participation in team sports and reducing symptoms of depression in young boys. But why would team sports have a positive impact on boys’ moods?

If you take a look at co-author Lisa Gorham’s web page (on Washington University's website), you’ll see that she’s a sports addict and captain of the cross-country and track teams. The learnings she's gathered from this experience clearly inspired her to conduct this research on adolescent mental health. Inspired by her coach’s philosophy (“not for me, for them”), she declared: “I had my best time ever because of all of the love and energy I felt from my team.” This expert in experimental cognitive neuroscience experienced firsthand the mental health benefits of team sports.

In the article’s introduction, the authors point to recent studies that indicate a link between participating in a sports activity with reduced symptoms of depression in young people. Research has even shown that exercise can have an impact on the volume of the hippocampus. This brain area appears to play a role in depression and a decrease in hippocampus volume has been observed in depressed subjects. However, the relationship had never been demonstrated clearly in pre-adolescents.

In the present article, the authors used the ABCD study (Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development), one of the largest long-term studies on child health and brain development in the United States. They examined data from a sample of 4,191 children ages 9 to 11. The data included information provided by the parents about the child’s behavior, sports and activities. Each subject also received a structural MRI.

The results show that there is a correlation between playing a sport and hippocampus volume in girls, but unlike boys, no additional link was found with depression. These correlations were even stronger in the case of structured team sports. Senior author Deanna Barch raises the possibility that a sports team, as a structure, could bring an added benefit, such as social interaction. Thus: “being on a team that can be useful at preventing or treating depression in young people.” These results provide important clues as to how team sports could benefit youth mental health, and also reveal differences in the effects according to gender. According to the authors, the fact that no correlation was established between girls’ participation in sports and symptoms of depression could mean either that different factors contribute to depression in girls or that the benefits of team sports on mood emerge only later.

As a precaution, the scientists are keen to point out that the results are not causational. This means that, while it’s possible that playing a sport increases the size of the hippocampus and reduces depression, it also could be that depressed children are less likely to play team sports. The hippocampus would be smaller in this case as well. In either case, the study’s results could have important implications for better understanding and treating child depression beginning at age nine.
Source: Lisa S. Gorham, Terry Jernigan, Jim Hudziak, Deanna M. Barch. “Involvement in Sports, Hippocampal Volume, and Depressive Symptoms in Children”, in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, Feb. 2019 // Washington University in Saint Louis website: “How team sports change a child’s brain” https://source.wustl.edu/2019/03/how-team-sports-change-a-childs-brain/

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