A new in-depth study found Irish teenagers are not getting the exercise they need daily, and 40% of teenagers self-report symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Just 8% of teens get the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise daily, the study found.
It suggests a need to develop physical activity guidelines for mental health.
The findings are included in the first study to explore the association between physical activity levels and mental health in the same cohort of students.
Carried out by researchers at Dublin City University (DCU), the study included a nationwide survey of more than 5,500 adolescents from almost 80 post-primary schools between September and October 2019.
Teens who took part in sport regularly were found to have higher levels of wellbeing and lower symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The study also found that the frequency of teens’ activity was positively associated with higher levels of wellbeing, and lower symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Teens taking part in the study completed anonymous online questionnaires on physical activity levels, sports participation, mental wellbeing and symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Eight-out-of-ten teens who took part in the study reported playing one sport, and 66% took part in team sports. The teens who play sports were found to have higher levels of wellbeing and lower symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Male teenagers were more likely to take part in team sports, with 70% of boys doing so in comparison to 56% of girls.
Levels of physical activity among young women also decreased as they got older.
Just 1% of sixth-year female students achieved the recommended physical activity guidelines per day.
Close to 90% of teens who identified as neither female nor male reported high levels of anxiety and depression.
Overall, the study found that young men reported greater levels of wellbeing and lower symptoms of anxiety.
The Physical Activity and Wellbeing (PAWS) study was undertaken by PhD student and PE teacher John Murphy, and Dr Bronagh McGrane and Dr Mary Rose Sweeney of DCU.
Its findings should help to narrow down the particular contexts that support and develop well being through physical activity, John Murphy said.
“This research highlights the importance of young people remaining involved in sport throughout adolescence for both the physical and mental health benefits.”
It’s important to remember that this research was conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic, Mary Rose Sweeney said.
“As a society we need to increase the opportunities for young people to become more active.”
Research is needed on exploring the impact of different types and intensities of physical activity on mental wellbeing to see whether increases in physical activity could be a viable alternative to pharmacological agents, she added.
Bronagh McGrane said: “While there are physical activity guidelines for physical health, the high levels of depression and anxiety symptoms in this study emphasises the need for physical activity guidelines for mental health.
“It also highlights the need for greater investment and resourcing to support adolescents in participating in sport and physical activity to improve both their physical and mental health.”