Exercising as a teen improves adult mental health, study proves

exercise teenage adult mental health
Exercising as a teen improves adult mental healthAlys Tomlinson - Getty Images

A global study by ASICS of over 26,000 people has uncovered a direct link between physical activity as a teenager and improved mental wellbeing in adulthood.

The study, conducted from November-December 2023, was led by Professor Brendon Stubbs of King’s College London, and found that those able to remain engaged in exercise throughout their adolescence exhibit higher activity levels and mental wellbeing as adults, than those who weren’t.

The study also identified the ages of 15-17 as the most critical years for staying active. Those who stopped exercise before the age of 15 displayed the lowest mental wellbeing later in life, including being 11% less focused, 10% less confident, 10% less calm and 10% less composed as adults, than those regularly active during ages 15-17.

'Being physically active in your teenage years directly impacts your mind later in life,' the research reveals.

How did the study work?

The results come as part of ASICS' second global State of Mind study, based on 'State of Mind' (i.e., mental health) scores given out of 100. It considers 22 countries, where the research samples match national population proportions in terms of age and gender. The scores are then calculated using rolling averages across ten cognitive and emotional traits, such as positive, content, and focused.

How do we know exercise as teens can improve mental health as adults? Well, the study found that Brits who regularly exercised at 15-17 years old are more active later in life, and report higher State of Mind scores as adults than those who weren’t active during these years.

ASICS adds: 'Every year a teenager remained engaged in regular exercise [more than 150 minutes a week] is associated with improved State of Mind scores in adulthood.' Stopping exercise before the age of 15 lowered the State of Mind score by 15%, whereas stopping before the age of 22 only lowered the score by 6%.

In the UK, those who regularly exercised at 15-17 years old have an average State of Mind score of 62/100 in adulthood, whereas those who were not active during those years have a score of 58/100.

exercising young improves adult mental health
’Swapping 60 minutes of screen time a day with movement can reduce new cases of depression by approximately 10%,’ says Professor Stubbs.Peter Cade - Getty Images

How did the UK score?

The overall average 'State of Mind' score of the UK in the newly released data is 61/100. This is two points lower than the findings in 2022, where the UK received a score of 63/100. It is also four points lower than the global average of 65/100. This places the UK 17th out of the 22 courting in the survey. Moreover, inactive people in the UK have a much lower State of Mind score of just 54/100.

OK, so why is exercise so good for mental health?

Professor Stubbs explains that the benefits of exercise are boosted when they replace another, unhealthier, habit: 'In another study in adolescents, we were able to demonstrate that if children could replace one hour of sedentary or screen time with being more active we could reduce new cases of depression by approximately 10%.'

As well as reducing mental health conditions, the authors of the study state that exercise can stimulate key emotional processing areas in the brain, which can reduce inflammation, and thereby improve gut health.

So, why is the UK's score decreasing?

Alarmingly, the study found a generational gap: younger generations are stopping exercise earlier and in larger numbers than the older generation did when they were younger.

Over half of the Silent Generation (aged 78+) recall being active on a daily basis in their childhood compared to just 21% of our current Gen Z (aged 18-27). This has resulted in Gen Z having a lower State of Mind score of 55/100 compared to the 69/100 of the Silent Generation.

Professor Stubbs said: 'It is worrying to see this decline in activity levels from younger respondents at such a critical age, particularly as the study uncovered an association with lower wellbeing across the world.

'Gen Zs across the world already exhibit the lowest State of Mind scores in comparison to the Silent Generation, so this could be hugely impactful for future mental wellbeing across the world.'

exercising young improves adult mental health
The overall average of the UK in the newly released data is 61/100, four points lower than the global average of 65/100. HRAUN - Getty Images

Gary Raucher, Executive Vice President, ASICS EMEA said: 'The results of our second global State of Mind Study show how important it is that young people stay active and the impact this can have on their minds for years to come.'

Hayley Jarvis, Head of Physical Activity for Mind, said: 'These results are concerning, especially as the mental health of young people is worsening, with one in five children and young people experiencing mental health problems.

'With 50% of common mental health problems experienced before the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24, our teenage years play a crucial role in laying the foundations for later life. Movement can play an important role in helping us all to stay well, reducing the risk of depression between 20-30%. We hope that through our work with ASICS, we see more teenagers remaining engaged in regular exercise, which will hopefully improve their overall mental wellbeing for now and years to come.'

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