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Playing Team Sports Fights Depression in Boys

New findings show impact of sports on developing brains.

Participation in team sports not only helps children improve fitness and social skills; it’s also linked with development of the hippocampus region of the brain, according to research published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging (2019; doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2019.01.011). In adults, lower hippocampal volume has been associated with depression for some time.

“We found that involvement in sports, but not non-sports activities such as music or art, is related to greater hippocampal volume in both boys and girls, and is related to reduced depression in boys,” said lead study author Lisa S. Gortham, a senior majoring in cognitive neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis. The finding was derived from analysis of data from a nationwide sample of children ages 9–11 that included information about depressive symptoms, sports activities and MRI scans of the brain.

Study authors noted that this finding is critical for public policy, because if involvement in sports does change children’s brain development through impact on the hippocampus and related networks, strong incentives exist to encourage children as young as 9–11 to participate regularly in sports activities.

More research is required to understand why girls did not experience the same antidepressant effect.

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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