This Is How Team Sports May Be Altering Your Brain For Better Mental Health

Written by Madison Vanderberg
Madison Vanderberg is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, editor, and screenwriter specializing in the women's lifestyle space with a Bachelor’s in Sociology from UCLA. Her work has appeared in Insider, Scary Mommy, Hunker, and more.

Image by Maresa Smith / Death to the stock photo

Playing sports as a kid has long been linked with improving one's social skills, work ethic, and respect for authority, but a new study published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging shows that participation in team sports, in particular, may actually serve an important mental health function: protection from depression.

Researchers scanned the brains of 4,000 children between the ages of 9 and 11 and surveyed the kids on their participation in sports and their depressive symptoms. They found all the kids who were active in team sports had a larger hippocampus—a region of the brain that plays an important part in memory, learning, and responding to stress. Shrinkage of the hippocampus has long been associated with depression, and researchers found the boys who participated in an organized sport not only had larger hippocampal volumes but also showed fewer depressive symptoms than the other kids.

Among the girls, the sports team players had bigger hippocampuses as well but no association with fewer depressive symptoms. Still, the importance of team sports was apparent: The researchers found the correlation between sports, brain activity, and mental health was greater in students who participated in organized sports as opposed to a casual game of pick-up basketball or participating in art or music.

"The fact that these relationships were strongest for team or structured sports suggests that there might be something about the combination of exercise and the social support or structure that comes from being on a team that can be useful at preventing or treating depression in young people," lead author Lisa Gorham said in a news release. "The findings raise intriguing possibilities for new work on preventing and treating depression in children."

This research focused on kids, but many past studies have proved that there is indeed a link between mental health and team exercise in adults as well. A 2018 study in the Lancet Psychiatry journal found people who exercised had fewer bad mental health days than people who didn't exercise, and those who played on an organized team sport had even fewer bad mental health days. Additionally, a 2017 study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association showed exercising with a group significantly improves quality of life and lowers stress as opposed to those who only participated in solitary exercise like running on the treadmill.

"Exercise releases biochemicals that help you bond with those you are working out with, and being together in a community also releases bonding biochemicals," neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., told mbg. "So really it is almost like a double dose of biochemicals, which helps to strengthen your sense of community."

In the present study, the researchers did note their findings couldn't prove causation between the sport activity, hippocampal size, and depression, but there was definitely an association between the three.

Whether you are 12 or 52, it's clear there is a significant link between mental health and exercising in a community. So in addition to that gym membership, consider finding a group class or (even better) joining a community softball league or an intramural flag football team instead. Your body and your brain will thank you.

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