Helping youth mental health via sports
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Sport has an incredible ability to deal with the mental-health issues increasingly faced by the youth in today’s digital age.

Youth facing the brunt of social media

Harvard Business Review recently reported that Gen Z and Millennials demonstrate higher depression and anxiety rates than all previous generations, with links regularly drawn between social media use and anxiety and depression as explanatory contributory variables. For example, psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, an expert in generational differences, recently noted that “rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen [Generation X] as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

The negative effects of social media use are compounded by the fact that the opportunity cost of spending time on social media leads to a profoundly reduced time spent exercising or in nature. Exercise and exposure to nature remain the most powerful natural interventions for stress, anxiety, and mild-to-moderate depression, so this temporal trade-off is a deeply concerning one. Current usage rates of the 8-15-year group show even higher habitual usage of the Internet, smart phones, and social media. For example, 45% of 8–11-year-olds are allowed to go to bed with a mobile phone, rising to 74% amongst 12–15-year-olds. This suggests that the relationship between heightened screen time and less exercise and nature exposure will only get worse over time for future generations.

Given the already high-volume of social media and internet usage amongst the pre-18-25 group, it is logical to predict that their usage will continue to increase over their lifespan, introducing concomitant risks of increased mental health issues.

Sport – a powerful intervention to tackle mental health challenges

A consistent theme in sports is that they build character and improve mental health, a claim usually reliant on qualitative studies and anecdotal accounts. It is possible, however, to further this claim using quantitative data – an approach that has arguably never been fully exploited before, which might prove easier-to-digest for many adolescents, coaches, parents and teachers.

A proliferation of quantitative sport science, exercise science, physiology and neurological studies makes it clear that the act of physical training (which can be done for its own ends, or for a sport), whether using a skipping rope, going for a run, walking, hiking, swimming, or any other multitude of physical pursuits, carries profound effects on adapting brain chemistry. The endocrinological state of the body can directly, immediately and sustainably lower feelings of stress, anxiety and mild depression. The effects amplify further if the training takes place in nature.

What is less appreciated is the sheer volume of the endocrinological spectrum that influences mental and emotional health, and the highly specific differences that exist between sports and modes of training in innervating different chemical reactions within the body (e.g., pronounced endo-cannabinoid secretion is observable during heavy squats, which exerts a powerful calming effect on the brain, different than the calming effects of swimming, for example, that partly benefits from the major cortisol-lowering effects of exposure to nature, using water as a medium). This level of detail can empower adolescents and parents to adopt training to maximize endocrinological outcomes across the spectrum. Thereby, it is important to choose a sport that will materially produce the best outcomes when it comes to emotional health benefits. This level of specificity and quantitative evidence in supporting it, elevates the profile of physical training in a major way, and can be communicated via social media and the internet in easy-to-digest modes (e.g., YouTube videos, e-Book).


Dr. Elesa Zehndorfer is an author and academic. She was awarded her PhD from Loughborough University in 2006, and is a five-time published author. 

A convenor of the Mindanao Peace Games, and Athletic Director of Ateneo de Davao University, Coach Noli Ayo is one of the authors of the recently released sports book Winning Still


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