Physical activity in European adolescents and associations with anxiety, depression and well-being


In this cross-sectional study, physical activity, sport participation and associations with well-being, anxiety and depressive symptoms were examined in a large representative sample of European adolescents. A school-based survey was completed by 11,110 adolescents from ten European countries who took part in the SEYLE (Saving and Empowering Young Lives in Europe) study. The questionnaire included items assessing physical activity, sport participation and validated instruments assessing well-being (WHO-5), depressive symptoms (BDI-II) and anxiety (SAS). Multi-level mixed effects linear regression was used to examine associations between physical activity/sport participation and mental health measures. A minority of the sample (17.9 % of boys and 10.7 % of girls; p < 0.0005) reported sufficient activity based on WHO guidelines (60 min + daily). The mean number of days of at least 60 min of moderate-to-vigorous activity in the past 2 weeks was 7.5 ± 4.4 among boys and 5.9 days ± 4.3 among girls. Frequency of activity was positively correlated with well-being and negatively correlated with both anxiety and depressive symptoms, up to a threshold of moderate frequency of activity. In a multi-level mixed effects model more frequent physical activity and participation in sport were both found to independently contribute to greater well-being and lower levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms in both sexes. Increasing activity levels and sports participation among the least active young people should be a target of community and school-based interventions to promote well-being. There does not appear to be an additional benefit to mental health associated with meeting the WHO-recommended levels of activity.

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The SEYLE project is supported through Coordination Theme 1 (Health) of the European Union Seventh Framework Program (FP7), Grant agreement nr HEALTH-F2-2009-223091. The Project Leader and Coordinator of the SEYLE project is Professor Danuta Wasserman, Karolinska Institute (KI), Head of the National Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention of Mental Ill-Health and Suicide (NASP), at KI, Sweden. Other members of the Executive Committee are Professor Marco Sarchiapone, University of Molise, Italy; Senior Lecturer Vladimir Carli, Karolinska Institute, Sweden; Professor Christina W. Hoven, New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University, USA; Anthropologist Camilla Wasserman, New York State Psychiatric Institute, USA and Department of Health Sciences, University of Molise, Italy. Site leaders for each SEYLE centre are: Danuta Wasserman (Karolinska Institute, Sweden, Coordinating Centre), Christian Haring (University for Medical Information Technology, Austria), Airi Varnik (Estonian Swedish Mental Health & Suicidology Institute, Estonia), Jean-Pierre Kahn (University of Lorraine, France), Romuald Brunner (University of Heidelberg, Germany), Judit Balazs (Vadaskert Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital, Hungary), Paul Corcoran (National Suicide Research Foundation, Ireland), Alan Apter (Tel-Aviv University, Israel), Marco Sarchiapone (University of Molise, Italy), Doina Cosman (Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine and Pharmacy, Romania), Vita Postuvan (University of Primorska, Slovenia) and Julio Bobes (University of Oviedo, Spain).

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Correspondence to Elaine M. McMahon.

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McMahon, E.M., Corcoran, P., O’Regan, G. et al. Physical activity in European adolescents and associations with anxiety, depression and well-being. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 26, 111–122 (2017).

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  • Adolescent
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mental health
  • Exercise