Are Physical Activity Levels in Childhood Associated with Future Mental Health Outcomes? Longitudinal Analysis Using Millennium Cohort Study Data


Physical activity impact on mental health
longitudinal physical and mental health research
Millennium Cohort Study
childhood physical movement patterns and adolescent mental wellbeing
Kessler K6
Warwick–Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale


The rising prevalence of mental health conditions among children and young adults accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic emphasises the urgent need to address this issue effectively. A potential avenue for early diagnosis lies in physical activity patterns as individuals with mental health conditions often move less than the general population. This paper utilises Millennium Cohort Study data to investigate the relationship between childhood physical movement patterns, and mental distress and wellbeing outcomes in late adolescence. By controlling for a range of factors of both cohort members and their parents, the study employs well-adjusted logistic and linear regressions to assess the hypothesis. Objective physical movement data is collected with accelerometers, while mental distress is measured using the Kessler K6 scale and mental wellbeing using the Warwick–Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale. The findings of the study suggest no significant association between raw physical movement and mental distress; however, there is suggestive evidence of a weak positive association with mental wellbeing. In addition, the study found that lower exercise levels at age 7 were associated with an increased likelihood of mental distress at age 17, highlighting the potential impact of exercise habits on mental health in adolescence. Overall, these findings suggest that raw physical activity data may be a better predictor of specific mental health outcomes, such as those assessed by the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire in similar studies. The paper offers recommendations for future research – such as using self-reported questionnaires to contextualise quantitative physical movement data – and a more comprehensive analysis of the cognitive and mental implications.
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Copyright (c) 2023 Ieva Karvelyte


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