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Teens Tout Both Mental and Physical Benefits of Exercise in New Study

When encouraging teenagers to exercise, parents and school staff don't have to only play up the physical benefits. Teens are equally aware of the mental perks of exercise, according to a new study from a professor at Concordia University.

The study tapped a total of 1,096 students from six public and private high schools in Montreal. The participants were separated into 123 focus groups based on grade level, sex, and school type, then asked about the perceived outcomes of their involvement in sports and/or physical activity.

The focus groups took place during the students' regularly scheduled physical education classes, lasting 50 minutes in all cases. Students were asked a set of four questions, beginning with a broad focus on potential benefits from participation in sports and physical activity. The questions began narrowing down from there, with students asked to explain how physical activity affected their moods, behavior, and personality.

A total of 12 themes were identified in the responses, with positive health and physical changes (18.5 percent), activity-related positive emotions (15.6 percent), and personal learning (11.3 percent) most predominant among the participants. Students also mentioned leadership and team skills (9.4 percent), positive character development (8.8 percent), and social skills and friends (6.4 percent) as tangible benefits from participation in sports or other types of physical activity.

"We're looking at a generation that has grown up with parents who have yo-yoed around exercise, talked incessantly about what they should do and what they haven't been doing," said James Gavin, the author of the study and a professor at Concordia, in a statement. "These adolescents are savvy about the lingo of exercise, seeing it as part of a lifestyle, whereas a generation ago there might have been less of a pervasive awareness."

Roughly one in every eight students highlighted potential negative effects of sports or physical activity, such as the potential for injury, less personal time, or generating sports-related aggression. Boys were significantly more likely than girls to mention aggression in their responses, according to the study.

The study also uncovers differences between the sports- or physical-activity-related perceptions of private school students and those in public schools. Students in private schools were more likely than their public school peers to emphasize the themes of sport-positive emotions and learning. The study offers no hypothesis why this might be, however.

Ultimately, Gavin and his colleagues conclude that based on the students' responses, teenagers' motivation for engaging in sports and physical activity isn't just limited to physical benefits, such as building strength or losing weight.

"It's a hugely important finding because the marketing of exercise to both adolescents and adults has been largely around how it makes you look better, helps you lose weight," Gavin said in a statement.

Just yesterday, I wrote about a new study that found higher levels of aerobic fitness could bolster a child's ability to learn and remember information. Raising students' awareness of the all-encompassing benefits of physical activity should only serve as more incentive for them to get their bodies moving.

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