The preteen and teenage years can be rough for a lot of kids. Their bodies are changing, their hormones are raging, and anxiety and depression can be a very real part of their existence.
In fact, a 2016 study in the journal Pediatrics found a 37 percent increase in the number of teens who have experienced major depressive episodes over the last decade.
Many of those kids aren’t getting the help they need either.
The Child Mind Institute reported that 60 percent of kids with depression are going without treatment.
Those are bleak numbers for any parent to consider — but what if there were a way to mitigate the chances your child might one day live with depression?
It turns out there may be.
Recent research found that involvement in team sports was correlated with a larger hippocampal volume (the area of the brain responsible for processing of long-term memory and emotional responses) in both boys and girls.
This is important because adult depression has actually been linked to a shrinking hippocampus in .
In fact, the latest report did find a reduction in depression rates among boys ages 9 to 11 who were involved in team sports.
The findings make sense, according to Dr. Cynthia LaBella, chairperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, and medical director at the Institute for Sports Medicine at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
“Team sports provide regular aerobic activity, which is known to have beneficial effects on memory, cognition, and mood,” she told Healthline.
That same involvement can also provide kids with a social network of peers, while also instilling in them a sense of purpose, belonging, and achievement.
“All of which are protective factors against depression,” LaBella explained.
The study involved 4,191 children between ages 9 and 11 and relied on parents to answer questions about their child’s participation in a variety of activities as well as any symptoms of depression.
The beneficial results weren’t found for non-sporting activities.
However, the study authors acknowledged this could be because participation in sports increases the hippocampus and decreases depression, or it could be that teens predisposed to depression may not be as interested in participating in sporting activities.
They say this is an area where more research may need to be done.
But Monica Jackman, an occupational therapist at Little Lotus Therapy in Port St. Lucie, Florida, can see why team sports may have provided a more noticeable positive impact.
“Team sports inherently foster development of social emotional inhibitory control and self-regulation skills as players must follow and remember game rules, take turns, cooperate and collaborate with teammates, build trust in teammates, and experience empathy for others during wins and losses,” she told Healthline.
But do those positive benefits extend to kids who may not be as naturally athletic?
Jackman explained that while “children with developmental coordination disorder have reported higher rates of loneliness and lower self-concept than typically developing children,” have shown that those same kids have been found to report less of that loneliness when participating in team sports even when their coordination difficulties may otherwise hold them back.
The study’s findings may encourage many parents to seek out more activities for their kids to join.
However, the researchers note that the positive benefits they observed did not extend to other activities like art or music.
Specifically, non-sport activities were not found to be associated with any increased volume of the hippocampus or decreased rates of depression.
Individual sports were also not shown to make a difference in either area.
LaBella has a theory as to why that may be.
“I suspect the reason the study did not find the same results for participation in other activities may be because other activities do not combine physical training with working together as a team to achieve a common goal and beat an opponent,” she said.
So it’s not enough to just be on a team (chess club, for instance), or to just engage in physical activity (like weight training).
To see the true benefits presented in the study, one would have to be doing both — participating in a team sport, where cooperation and physical activity combine.
LaBella explained that, “With individual sports, such as swimming and golf, and other non-sports activities, such as art, music, crafts, or chess, the participants train, perform, and compete alone. So the peer socialization benefits are much less.”
However she encourages parents not to dismiss the benefits those other activities offer.
“It’s important to know that participation in music and art have also been shown to be beneficial to brain health in other ways,” she explained.
One other interesting outcome of the study was that while the increased hippocampal volume was detected in both boys and girls who played team sports, only the boys also showed a noticeable reduction in depression rates.
The study authors theorized this may be because boys and girls have different pressures that contribute to depression, or it could be the reduction in depression rates simply become more evident in girls at later ages.
Either way, Jackman has advice for parents concerned about helping their children avoid the struggles of depression: Encourage “active engagement in activities that provide organic opportunity for social emotional learning and connection.”
In today’s digital age, where so many kids are using social media and digital games to interact, she worries they’re missing out on opportunities to gain conflict resolution skills and build on collaborative problem solving.
She’s also concerned they aren’t learning to recognize real-life social cues, such as body language, facial affect, and emotional tone of voice as much as they should.
“By their nature, team sports and other goal-directed or structured group activities can nurture social communication, self-efficacy, cooperation, and integrity and respect for group rules and objectives,” she explained.
LaBella said she’s happy to see team sports getting some positive press and hopes more parents will take note of the positive benefits they can provide for kids.
“The stories that often make headlines are injuries due to sports,” she explained. “But it’s important for parents to know that for the overwhelming majority of kids, the benefits of sports participation far outweigh the risks.”
Which means that for many parents, now may be the time to start getting your kids involved in a team sport.