Battling the Effects of Bullying With Exercise

Bullied adolescents who engage in regular exercise have reduced rates of suicidal ideation and attempt compared to their sedentary peers.

Study results scheduled for publication in the October 2015 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggest that physical activity on 4 or more days per week appears to reduce suicidal ideation and attempt by 23% when compared with physical activity on 1 or no days per week, among bullied adolescents in the United States.

Whereas physical activity has been shown to improve mental health—including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse—in general and clinical populations, until the current study, few studies had assessed the ability of physical activity to protect the nearly 20% of students who report being bullied on school property from the multiple associated negative sequelae, including academic struggle, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and self-harm.

For the study, data from a nationally representative sample of youth who participated in the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey were examined to determine the relationship between exercise frequency, sadness, and suicidal ideation and attempt in nearly 14,000 high school-aged U.S. adolescents. Led by Jeremy Sibold, ATC, EdD, Rehabilitation and Movement Science Department Chair and Associate Professor of Rehabilitation and Movement Science at the University of Vermont, the research team tested the hypothesis that exercise frequency would be inversely related to sadness and suicidality and that these benefits would extend to bullying victims.

Survey results showed that 30.0% of students overall had reported sadness for 2 or more weeks, 22.2% had reported suicidal ideation, and 8.2% had reported suicide attempt in the previous 12 months. Students who were victims of bullying were twice as likely to report feeling sad and three times as likely to report suicidal ideation or attempt when compared with non-bullied students.

When looking at the impact of physical activity, Sibold and colleagues found that students who reported exercising 4 to 5 days per week had lower adjusted odds of sadness, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts that students who exercised 0 to 1 days per week.

The study investigators suggest that exercise represents a safe, economical, and potentially highly effective option to battling the negative effects of bullying in schools. However, they call for more research to further define the mechanisms behind their findings and the role that exercise may play in reducing the often severe mental health consequences of bullying victims. The benefits of exercise could possibly extend beyond the school setting to a public health approach to reduce suicidal behavior in all adolescents, they suggest.