Posted on November 6, 2013 in Teen Mental Health

Physical Fitness in Teen Years Reduces Suicide Risk Later

There has been increased attention given to the sedentary habits of teens in the United States as a result of higher rates of obesity among young people. Among the concerns of experts are the long hours spent in front of television, video games and on the Internet, which may take the place of other, more active options.

Teens currently have more opportunities than ever to access a variety of entertainment options. No longer limited to the shows offered on regular programming or even what is offered on DVDs, teens can now choose shows and movies from Netflix and cell phones provide thousands of options for games and video viewing.

With so many choices in entertainment, it is easy to understand how a teen may not be motivated to leave the armchair for more active pursuits. However, a new study provides evidence that may further encourage teens, their parents and educators to make fitness a priority.

Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have discovered that fitness levels measured at the age of 18 may predict suicidal ideation later in adulthood. Those who are more fit as they transition into young adulthood reduce the risk of suicide later.

The study focused on results of a medical exam conducted for the purposes of compulsory military service in Sweden. As psychologist and researcher Dr. Margda Waern explains, poor physical shape at the age of 18 predicted an increased risk of suicidal behavior. Those who scored poorly on the physical fitness test, taken on an exercise bike, were 1.8 times more likely to exhibit suicidal behavior.

The findings appear in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Medicine. The findings add additional insight to previous research that showed a positive impact on brain function when an individual was in good physical shape. Studies have proven that with physical exercise, there in an increased number of nerve cells produced.

The current study’s findings showed that the positive effects of a physically fit body are long-lasting. The risk of suicide was decreased even 42 years following the exam.

This may be due to the nature of the teenage brain. Maria Åberg, M.D., who led the study with Waern, explains that the brain establishes its social and emotional faculties during the teen years.

The researchers utilized the health information of Swedish men born between 1950 and 1987, which were all required to complete the mandatory military health profile. The results were compared to national registers of death and disease to determine if there was a relationship between physical health and mental health.

The researchers were able to focus on the approximately 340,000 brothers who completed the exam, enabling the researchers to examine various hereditary factors and the role of the home environment.

The current study follows one conducted in 2012, in which the same group of researchers provided evidence that physical fitness during the teen years prevented severe depression in later adulthood.

However, in the new study, the researchers showed that even when accounting for cases of severe depression, physical fitness was still a reliable predictor for the risk of suicidal behavior. Depression is a strong predictor of suicidal ideation, but when considering these factors in young people, the factors are usually varied and complex.

One explanation for the protection offered by physical fitness is that the brain may be more resistant to stress if the body is physically active.

The findings could be implemented immediately to encourage physical fitness in youth as not only a physical health initiative, but one that provides mental health benefits, too.

Parents and educators may be able to use this information to encourage teens to exercise and be more physically fit. The findings add to a growing body of research that shows a connection between mental and physical health.

Teens who spend a significant amount of time avoiding physical activity could experience immediate mental health benefits by getting active, but this study shows that the benefits of getting fit can last for decades after the teen years are over.

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