Springer Nature is making Coronavirus research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

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



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.


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).


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.


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Department of Health (2003) Health Survey for England 2002: The health of children and young people. The Stationary Office, London

  2. 2.

    Tammelin T, Nayha S, Hills AP, Jarvelin MR (2003) Adolescent participation in sports and adult physical activity. Am J Prev Med 24:22–28

  3. 3.

    Telama R, Yang X, Laakso L, Viikari J (1997) Physical activity in childhood and adolescence as predictor of physical activity in young adulthood. Am J Prev Med 13:317–323

  4. 4.

    Fombonne E (1998) Increased rates of psychosocial disorders in youth. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 248:14–21

  5. 5.

    Brodersen NH, Steptoe A, Williamson S, Wardle J (2005) Sociodemographic, developmental, environmental, and psychological correlates of physical activity and sedentary behavior at age 11–12. Ann Behav Med 29:2–11

  6. 6.

    Kirkcaldy BD, Shephard RJ, Siefen RG (2002) The relationship between physical activity and self-image and problem behaviour among adolescents. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 37:544–550

  7. 7.

    Laukkanen E, Shemeikka S, Notkola IL, Koivumaa-Honkanen H, Nissinen A (2002) Externalizing and internalizing problems at school as signs of health-damaging behaviour and incipient marginalization. Health Promot Int 17:139–146

  8. 8.

    Norris R, Carroll D, Cochrane R (1992) The effects of physical activity and exercise training on psychological stress and wellbeing in an adolescent population. J Psychosom Res 36: 55–65

  9. 9.

    Steptoe A, Butler N (1996) Sports participation and emotional wellbeing in adolescents. Lancet 34:1789–1792

  10. 10.

    Boys A, Farrell M, Taylor C, Marsden J, Goodman R, Brugha T, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Meltzer H (2003) Psychiatric morbidity and substance use in young people aged 13–15 years: results from the Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health. Br J Psychiatry 182:509–517

  11. 11.

    Clark DB, Bukstein OG (1998) Psychopathology in adolescent alcohol abuse and dependence. Alcohol Health Res World 22:117–121

  12. 12.

    Riley AW, Ensminger ME, Green B, Kang M (1998) Social role functioning by adolescents with psychiatric disorders. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 37:620–628

  13. 13.

    Pate RR, Heath GW, Dowda M, Trost SG (1996) Associations between physical activity and other health behaviors in a representative sample of US adolescents. Am J Pub Health 86:1577–1581

  14. 14.

    Thorlindsson T, Vilhjalmsson R (1991) Factors related to cigarette smoking and alcohol use among adolescents. Adolescence 26:399–418

  15. 15.

    Whincup PH, Owen CG, Sattar N, Cook DG (2005) School dinners and markers of cardiovascular health and type 2 diabetes in 13–16 year-old: cross sectional study. BMJ 331: 1060–1061

  16. 16.

    Strazzullo P, Cappuccio FP, Trevisan M, De Leo A, Krogh V, Giorgione N, Mancini M (1988) Leisure time physical activity and blood pressure in school children. Am J Epidemiol, 127:726–733

  17. 17.

    Goodman R (1997) The strengths and difficulties questionnaire: a research note. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 38:581–586

  18. 18.

    Goodman R (2001) Psychometric properties of the strengths and difficulties questionnaire. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 40:1337–1345

  19. 19.

    Prescott-Clarke P, Primatesta P (1998) Health Survey for England: The health of young people. The Stationary Office, London

  20. 20.

    Office for National Statistics (1997) Smoking among secondary school children in 1996: England. The stationary Office, London

  21. 21.

    Taylor SJ, Whincup PH, Hindmarsh PC, Lampe F, Odoki K, Cook DG (2001) Performance of a new pubertal self-assessment questionnaire: A preliminary study. Paediat Perinat Epidemiol 15:88–94

  22. 22.

    Goodman R, Meltzer H, Bailey V (1998) The strengths and difficulties questionnaire: a pilot study on the validity of the self-report version. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 7:125–130

  23. 23.

    Ekeland E, Heian F, Hagen KB, Abbott J, Nordheim L (2004) Exercise to improve self-esteem in children and young people. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 1:CD003683

  24. 24.

    Vilhjalmsson R, Thorlindsson T (1992) The integrative and physiological effects of sport participation: a study of adolescents. Sociol Quart 33:637–647

  25. 25.

    Meeusen R, De Meirleir K (1995) Exercise and brain neurotransmission. Sports Med 20:160–188

Download references


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.



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’.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

Key words

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