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The relationship between physical activity, sedentary behaviour and psychological wellbeing among adolescents

Abstract

Background

Previous studies examining the relationship between physical activity levels and broad-based measures of psychological wellbeing in adolescents have been limited by not controlling for potentially confounding variables. The present study examined the relationship between adolescents’ self-reported physical activity level, sedentary behaviour and psychological wellbeing; while controlling for a broad range of sociodemographic, health and developmental factors.

Methods

The study entailed a cross-sectional school-based survey in ten British towns. Two thousand six hundred and twenty three adolescents (aged 13–16 years) reported physical activity levels, patterns of sedentary behaviour (TV/computer/video usage) and completed the strengths and difficulties questionnaire (SDQ).

Results

Lower levels of self-reported physical activity and higher levels of sedentary behaviour showed graded associations with higher SDQ total difficulties scores, both for boys (P < 0.001) and girls (P < 0.02) after adjustment for age and town. Additional adjustment for social class, number of parents, predicted school examination results, body mass index, ethnicity, alcohol intake and smoking status had little effect on these findings.

Conclusions

Low levels of self-reported physical activity are independently associated with diminished psychological wellbeing among adolescents. Longitudinal studies may provide further insights into the relationship between wellbeing and activity levels in this population. Ultimately, randomised controlled trials are needed to evaluate the effects of increasing physical activity on psychological wellbeing among adolescents.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the research team members and to the participating schools and pupils. The fieldwork for this study was supported by a Wellcome Trust project grant (No. 051187/Z/97/A).

Author information

Correspondence to Dr. Michael H. Ussher.

Appendix

Appendix

1. Physical activity questions

  1. (i)

    ‘Which one of the following statements describes you best? All or most of my free time is spent doing things which involve little physical effort (e.g. Doing homework, talking to friends and watching TV); Once or twice a week I do things in my free time which involve some physical effort (e.g. walking, cycling and table tennis); I quite often (4–6 times a week) do things in my free time which involve physical exercise; I very often (7 times a week or more) do things in my free time which involve physical exercise;

  2. (ii)

    ‘Compared with other pupils of your own age and sex, would you say that you are: Much less active; A bit less active; About average; A bit more active; Much more active’.

  3. (iii)

    Parents were asked ‘Which of the following best describes your child’s level of physical activity outside school? Spends all or most of leisure time watching television, going to cinema and other sedentary activities; Spends time occasionally in light physical activities (e.g. walking, bicycling and table tennis); Participates in regular sporting activities for up to 3 h a week (e.g. soccer, swimming, gymnastics, tennis and skating); Participates in regular sporting activities for more than 3 h a week (e.g. soccer, swimming, gymnastics, tennis and skating).’

2. Sedentary behaviour question

‘Television, video and computer games. How many hours each day do you spend doing these things altogether: an hour or less; 1–2 h; 2–3 h; more than 3 h’.

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Ussher, M.H., Owen, C.G., Cook, D.G. et al. The relationship between physical activity, sedentary behaviour and psychological wellbeing among adolescents. Soc Psychiat Epidemiol 42, 851–856 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-007-0232-x

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Key words

  • adolescence
  • physical activity
  • psychological wellbeing
  • sedentary
  • strengths and difficulties questionnaire