How is playing outside related to mental health and prevention of diseases like diabetes? Well, a team of researchers at the Université de Moncton and Centre de formation médicale du N.-B. has been looking into the link between physical activity and health – both physical and mental – in children and young adults.
The Research Laboratory on Chronic Disease Prevention was named New Brunswick Health Research Foundation’s team of the month for September.
One of their studies has found that the number of years a person takes part in physical activity during their early years and adolescence is directly correlated with their mental health status later in life. The more physically active, the healthier they will be mentally, too.
“We’ve been able to demonstrate that the outdoors has a positive effect on mental health status as well…Outdoor time leads to physical activity, which eventually leads to mental health,” says Mathieu Bélanger, the lead researcher in the Monitoring Activities of Teenagers to Comprehend their Habits (MATCH) study.
MATCH is a unique study in which the habits of nearly 1,000 children initially aged 10 to 11 from across New Brunswick are monitored over eight years. The researchers plan to continue monitoring them for as long as they can. Twenty-one scientific articles have been published based on this study.
“We’ve been following [the kids] since 2011, and three times a year, we measure their participation in all sorts of physical activities and all sorts of determinants of physical activities and outcomes associated to the behavior as well,” Bélanger explains. “We’ve already followed them up for 24 survey cycles…that allows us to provide a very clear description of the natural development of physical activity and sports participation over time.”
The study aims to clearly describe what influences participation in physical activity because while most people experience a decline in participation, others maintain or increase it.
“We want to understand what influences that and what sort of outcomes are associated with different patterns of physical activity,” Bélanger said.
So far, the study found children who are active in many kinds of sports are more likely to remain active as they grow older compared to their peers who are engaged in just one or two sports.
“That leads to the recommendation that children take part in a larger variety of physical activity for promoting the maintenance of the behaviour over time,” he said.
The study also found that children who take part in physical activity because they enjoy it or feel competent in it tend to maintain the activity. Those who take part because they want to improve their health or body image, or those who join in because of the social aspect of sports “are not really protected against the decline in physical activity,” Bélanger said.
It’s really about creating a sense of enjoyment, making it fun, that’s going to make a difference and retain people in physical activity.”
The MATCH team has worked with some school boards in New Brunswick to help develop healthier school policies. It also works with other knowledge users – any agencies, organizations or government departments like Sport Canada and ParticipACTION.
Studies like MATCH are important because around 93 per cent of children in Canada aren’t getting a sufficient amount of physical activity.
Bélanger says he doesn’t have all the answers on why this is the case, but the data indicates many children live in environments where it’s easier to be sedentary than active, and without the best nutrition sources. And then there’s the link to screen time.
“With the early years, it’s easy to put an iPad or tablet in front of your kid when you’re making supper or whatever it is. We’re competing also with technology at that age,” said Stephanie Ward, a part of the team who leads the Healthy Start study.
Yet, the literature shows children who don’t have enough physical activity and have poor nutrition develop narrower and stiffer arteries than normal, Bélanger said.
Kids don’t necessarily feel the consequences in those early years, but it’s going to follow them throughout their life afterwards,” he said. “Even though [chronic] conditions tend to appear in the adult years, they actually start to develop in the very early years.”
Those ages five and above need about one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, and those under five need 180 minutes of total physical activity, Ward said.
Healthy Start-Départ Santé, another key study by the team, aims to help children get used to good habits from an early age. The healthy eating and physical activity intervention started in 2013 in partnership with a team in Saskatchewan following a pilot project there.
Under Healthy Start-Départ Santé, researchers provided a three-hour training session to the staff of childcare centres on best practices related to healthy eating, physical activity, fundamental movement skills and how to change policies within the facilities. They also provided a booster session a few months later.
The researchers measured things like children’s physical activity over the course of five days during childcare centre hours, as well as their food intake at lunch time, and conducted environmental scans and questionnaires with parents and educators. They monitor the kids’ fundamental movement skills as well, which has shown to improve following the intervention.
“That was the first promising aspect of the intervention,” Ward said.
But a lack of resources and support were identified as key barriers to implementing a healthy eating and active environment in childcare centres.
Now the project is in the phase of scaling up with an online version of the in-person training and booster sessions, available for free for anyone working in the early childhood education sector. So far, the intervention includes 78 childcare centres in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. It’s also part of the official training of early childhood educators in New Brunswick, and in a college in Saskatchewan.
This story is sponsored by the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation (NBHRF). Read stories about previous research teams of the month archived on the NBHRF web site.