Study: Exercise Helps Teens Who Are Bullied

Front Page / Oct. 8, 2015 9:42am EDT

A new study by University of Vermont researchers indicates that regular exercise significantly reduces both suicidal thoughts and attempts by students who are bullied.

Using data from the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 13,583 high school students, researchers found that being physically active four or more days per week resulted in a 23% reduction in suicidal ideation and attempts in bullied students. Nationwide nearly 20% of students reported being bullied on school property.

Previous studies have shown that exercise has positive effects on various mental health measures. This is the first, however, to show a link between physical activity and a reduction in suicidal thoughts and attempts by bullied students, who are also at increased risk for poor academic performance, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, sadness and substance abuse.

Overall, 30% of students in the study reported feeling sad for two or more weeks in the previous year while more than 22% reported suicidal ideation and 8.2% reported actual suicidal attempts during the same time period.

Bullied students were twice as likely to report sadness, and three times as likely to report suicidal ideation or attempt, when compared to peers who were not bullied. Exercise on four or more days per week was also associated with significant reductions in sadness.

“I was surprised that it was that significant and that positive effects of exercise extended to kids actually trying to harm themselves,” said lead author Jeremy Sibold, associate professor and chair of the Department Rehabilitation and Movement Science. “Even if one kid is protected because we got them involved in an after-school activity or in a physical education program, it’s worth it.”

PE Eliminated

The release of Sibold’s study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry comes at a time when 44% of schools nation-wide have cut significant amounts of time from physical education, arts, and recess so that more time could be devoted to reading and mathematics, since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Overall, it is estimated that only about half of America’s youth meet the current evidence-based guideline of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department of at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderateintensity physical activity daily.

In its biennial survey of high school students across the nation, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly half said they had no physical education classes in an average week.

“It’s scary and frustrating that exercise isn’t more ubiquitous and that we don’t encourage it more in schools,” said Sibold. “Instead, some kids are put on medication and told ‘good luck.’”

Sibold and his co-authors, Erika Edwards, research assistant professor in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, Dianna Murray-Close, associate professor in psychology, and psychiatry professor James J. Hudziak, who has published extensively on the positive effects of exercise on mental health outcomes, say they hope their paper increases the consideration of exercise programs as part of the public health approach to reduce suicidal behavior in all adolescents.

“Considering the often catastrophic and long lasting consequences of bullying in school-aged children, novel, accessible interventions for victims of such conduct are sorely needed,” they conclude.

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