Physical Activity at a young age can help prevent emotional difficulties later on, study claims

Thinking of getting your child to take up a sport that involves a coach or instructor? Good news: a new study finds that children who engage in organised physical activity at a young age are less likely to have emotional difficulties by the time they turn 12.

“The elementary school years are a critical time in child development,” said Frédéric N. Brière, an Université de Montréal professor of psycho-education who led the study, published this month in Pediatric Research.

“And every parent wants to raise a well-adjusted child.”

Besides keeping children from being sedentary, physical activities such as structured sports have the potential to be enriching both physically and mentally, Brière believes, something parents seem to know instinctively.

The study tested that intuitive logic with a large representative population of typically developing Canadian children.

“We followed a birth cohort over time to examine whether consistent participation in organised sport from ages 6 to 10 would minimise risks associated with emotional distress, anxiety, shyness, social withdrawal at age 12,” said Brière. “Our goal was to test this question as critically as possible by eliminating pre-existing child or family conditions that could offer an alternative explanation.”

To do this, Brière and his team at UdeM’s School of Psycho-Education examined data from a cohort of children born in 1997 or 1998 who are part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development coordinated by the Institut de la Statistique du Québec. From ages 6 to 10, mothers reported whether their child participated in organised physical activity. At age 12, teachers reported on the child’s levels of emotional distress, anxiety, shyness, and social withdrawal at school.

“The results revealed that children who participated consistently from ages 6 to 10 showed fewer instances of those factors at age 12 than their counterparts who did not engage in physical activity in a consistent way,” said Brière. “We found these benefits above and beyond pre-existing individual and family characteristics.”

His conclusion: “Getting kids actively involved in organised sport seems to promote global development. This involvement appears to be good on a socio-emotional level and not just because of physical benefits. Being less emotionally distressed at the juncture between elementary and high school is a priceless benefit for children, as they are about to enter a much larger universe with bigger academic challenges. This research supports current parental guidelines promoting children’s involvement in physical activity.”

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About the study

“Consistent participation in organized phsyical activity perdicts emotional adjustment in children,” by Frédéric N. Brière, Arianne Imbeault, Gary Goldfield and Linda S. Pagani was published in the May issue of Pediatric Research. Brière and Pagani are professors at the École de psychoéducation of Université de Montréal; Imbeault is studying under Brière’s supervision. Goldfield is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Ottawa and senior scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.

The study was supported by a SSHRC grant (SSHRC-435?2017?0784) awarded to Brière as principal investigator. Additional funding by the Fondation Lucie et André Chagnon, the Institut de la Statistique du Québec, the Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’Enseignement supérieur (MEES), the Ministère de la Famille (MF), the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST), the Centre hospitalier universitaire Sainte-Justine, and the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux du Québec (MSSS).

Data were compiled from the final master file ‘E1-E20’ of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development (1998-2017).

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