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Emotional and Behavioral Problems in Relation to Physical Activity in Youth


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: October 2008 - Volume 40 - Issue 10 - p 1749-1756
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31817b8e82
BASIC SCIENCES: Epidemiology

Purpose: Physical inactivity is known to be associated with mental health problems in adulthood, but the association in youth is unclear. This study evaluated the association between the level of physical activity and the prevalence of emotional and behavioral problems in Finnish adolescents.

Methods: The study population consisted of the Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1986 including 7002 adolescents who responded to a postal inquiry in 2001-2002 at the age of 15-16 yr. They completed the Youth Self-Report questionnaire assessing their emotional and behavioral problems and a questionnaire concerning their moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity (MVPA). The odds ratios (OR) and their 95% confidence intervals (95% CI) for having different emotional and behavioral problems were obtained in 2007 from logistic regression and adjusted for family type, income, parents' education, and body mass index.

Results: In boys, physical inactivity (1 h or less of MVPA per week) was associated with anxious/depressed symptoms (OR = 2.9, 95% CI = 1.5-5.7), withdrawn/depressed symptoms (OR = 2.8, 95% CI = 1.8-4.2), social problems (OR = 3.6, 95% CI = 1.8-5.1), thought problems (OR = 2.3, 95% CI = 1.1-5.2), and attention problems (OR = 1.9, 95% CI = 1.0-3.4) when compared to being physically active (4 h or more of MVPA per week). In girls, physical inactivity was associated with withdrawn/depressed symptoms (OR = 2.3, 95% CI = 1.5-3.6), somatic complaints (OR = 1.4, 95% CI = 1.0-1.9), social problems (OR = 3.2, 95% CI = 1.7-6.1), attention problems (OR = 2.1, 95% CI = 1.3-3.2), and rule-breaking behavior (OR = 1.8, 95% CI = 1.3-2.5) compared to being physically active.

Conclusions: Physical inactivity was associated with several emotional and behavioral problems in adolescents. Future research should investigate the mechanisms behind these associations and the effectiveness of physical activity in the treatment of emotional and behavioral problems among young people.

1Institute of Health Sciences, University of Oulu, FINLAND; 2Young Finland Association, Helsinki, FINLAND; 3Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Oulu, FINLAND; and 4Clinic of Child Psychiatry, University and University Hospital of Oulu, FINLAND

Address for correspondence: Tuija H. Tammelin, Ph.D., Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Oulu, Aapistie 1, FIN-90220 Oulu, Finland; E-mail:

Submitted for publication August 2007.

Accepted for publication April 2008.

©2008The American College of Sports Medicine