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Can playing sports guard against youth depression?

Boy in a football helmet and uniform.

April 19, 2019—From getting exercise to making friends, playing sports benefits kids in lots of ways. Now, a new study suggests it may even help their mental health. Playing sports may enhance brain development in children and possibly guard against depression in some.

Researchers looked at more than 4,000 kids ages 9 to 11 who underwent brain imaging scans. Among young athletes, the scans showed an increased volume of brain tissue in a region called the hippocampus. This area plays a role in both memory and our response to stress. What's more, boys with greater hippocampus volume had fewer symptoms of depression.

The study suggests that hippocampus changes may play a role in depression for boys, the authors noted. Girls who played sports also showed increased brain volume, but researchers didn't see the same relationship to depression in girls.

The connection between sports and brain development was especially strong with school or league sports or regular lessons, according to the findings. This could mean the team or structured part of the sport conveys some special benefit that more informal play doesn't, the research team noted.

Sports and mental health

So can playing sports ward off depression? The study couldn't answer this question definitively. Other explanations are possible. For one, it could be that depressed kids are less likely to play sports.

But if confirmed by other studies, the findings would be another good reason to encourage kids to get sporty: good mental health.

The study appeared in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. Read more about the findings.

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