Playing sports as a kid has long been linked with improving one’s social skills, work ethic, and respect for authority. A new study published shows that participation in team sports, in particular, may serve an essential mental health function: protection from depression. Researchers examined the brain scans of 4,000 children and surveyed them on their participation in sports. They found all the kids who were active in team sports had a larger hippocampus—which plays an essential part in memory, learning, and responding to stress. Shrinkage of the hippocampus has long been associated with depression, and researchers found the boys who participated in an organized sport had not only larger hippocampal volumes but also showed fewer depressive symptoms than the other kids.
Among the girls, the sports team players had bigger hippocampus and no association with fewer depressive symptoms. Still, team sports’ importance was apparent: The researchers found the correlation between sports, brain activity, and mental health was more significant in students who participated in organized sports as opposed to a casual game of pick-up basketball or participating in art or music. These relationships were strongest for team sports, indicating that the combination of exercise and social support comes from playing with a team that can help prevent depression in young people.
This research focused on kids, but many studies have proved that there is a link between mental health and team exercise in adults. A 2018 study in the Lancet Psychiatry journal found that people who exercised had fewer mental health days than people who didn’t exercise. Those who played on an organized team sport had even fewer bad mental health days. Additionally, a 2017 study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association showed exercising with a group significantly improves the quality of life and lowers stress instead of those who only participated in a solitary exercise like running on the treadmill.
Exercise helps release biochemicals that help you bond with those you are working out with, and so does being together in a community, so really, it is almost like a double dose of biochemicals, which serves to strengthen our sense of community.
In the present study, the researchers did note their findings couldn’t prove causation between the sports activity, hippocampal size, and depression, but there was an association between the three.
Whether you are 12 or 52, it’s clear there is a significant link between mental health and exercise within a community. So consider finding a group class or joining a community softball league or an intramural flag football team instead.