While clear evidence links regular exercise to physical and mental benefits, there are still barriers to physical activity for many youths in the Unites States. Yet, the nature of those barriers is not well understood. In fact, few studies that have examined the relationship between physical activity and mental health disorders among youth in consideration of cultural factors and neighborhood conditions. Examining these issues, this study aims to examine the relationship between physical activity and the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or ADHD among adolescents in the United States.
Methods: Using data from the 2017 NCHS, which collects parental perspectives on their children’s mental, physical, social, and environmental wellbeing, separate logistic regressions were performed to determine the relationships between physical activity and mental health (i.e., anxiety, depression, and ADHD) outcomes, with controlling variables at individual, household and community levels. Our sample (n =21,599) focused exclusively on children ages 6-17 years.
Results: Most parents had access to sidewalks (71%), parks (73%) and perceived their neighborhood to be safe (95%), few parents (14%) perceived their children met the daily physical activity requirements. Children who met the daily physical requirements were 43% less likely to experience depression (p < .001), 39% likely to experience anxiety (p < .001), and 21% less likely to experience ADHD (p < .001). In addition, compared to their White peers, Latinx (by 26%, p < .001), Black (by 60%, p < .001), and Asian (by 74%, p < .001) children were less likely to experience anxiety. Black (by 34%, p < .01) and Asian (by 66%, p < .001) children were less likely to experience depression, while Asian (by 70%, p < .001) and Latinx (by 19%; p < .05) were less likely to experience ADHD. Finally, parents’ perceptions of their children experiencing anxiety (by 45%, p < .001) or depression (by 54%, p < .001) were lower if they perceived to be in a safe neighborhood.
Conclusion/Implications: Physical activity contributes to mental wellbeing among youth. However, neighborhood safety and access to amenities played a significant role in this study. Black, Indigenous, and Children of Color were less likely to be perceived as having mental health problems, a phenomenon that could be related to stigma and cultural mistrust associated with mental health-focused conversation. More research examining the relationship between physical activity and mental wellness, inclusive of culture and neighborhood factors, could provide further guidance for policy.