Exercise Might Help Mitigate the Effects of Bullying

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Young woman running outdoors in a city park
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A great deal of research points to the physical and psychological benefits of exercise. For teens, these benefits are particularly important, given that adolescence is a time of accelerated development and habit formation. It’s also, unfortunately, a time when a lot of people get bullied, and there hasn’t been much research on how exercise, with all the good things it does for one’s mental health, might help shield people from the many harmful effects of bullying. That’s what a team led by Dr. Jeremy Sibold of the University of Vermont set out to investigate in a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

The authors took data from 13,583 responses to the 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which asks teens a bunch of demographic and behavioral questions — as well as some about whether they’ve experienced real and in-person bullying — and examined the correlations between exercise and a few different important outcomes.

Overall, they found:

[]25.1% of students who reported exercising on 6 to 7 days per week felt sad for 2 weeks or more in the past 12 months, compared to 35.7% of students who reported exercising on 0 to 1 day. Of students who exercised on 6 to 7 days in the past week, 15.9% reported suicidal ideation, and 6.4% reported suicide attempt in the past 12 months, compared to 24.6% and 10.3% of students who exercised on 0 to 1 day, respectively.

The benefits of exercise held both for students who were bullied and those who weren’t:

Of bullied students who exercised 6 to 7 days per week, 34.7% felt sad or hopeless compared to 42.5% of bullied students who exercised on 0 to 1 day, whereas 10.5% of nonbullied students who exercised 6 to 7 days per week felt sad or hopeless compared to 18.1% of nonbullied students who exercised 0 to 1 day. Similarly, 36.8% of bullied students who exercised 6 to 7 days in the past week reported suicidal ideation compared to 45.9% of bullied students who exercised 0 to 1 day, whereas 11.8% of nonbullied students who exercised 6 to 7 days in the past week felt sad or hopeless compared to 20.7% of nonbullied students who exercised 0 to 1 day. In addition, 16.2% of bullied students who exercised 6 to 7 days in the past week reported suicide attempt as compared to 20.4% who exercised only 0 to 1 days. In nonbullied students who exercised 6 to 7 days per week, 3.5% reported suicide attempt versus 6.4% who exercised 0 to 1 day.

Taken together, these results certainly point to the idea that exercise can help prevent the worst psychological damages of bullying from setting in. But as the researchers point out, there are limits to what can be gleaned from this sort of correlational study — for instance, it might be the case not that exercise causes improvements in mood, but rather that people in a better mood are more likely to muster the will to exercise.

It would also be really interesting to see a study like this that factored in the severity of bullying. On the surveys in question, the bullying items are all in yes/no forms along the lines of “During the past 12 months, have you ever been bullied on school property? [emphasis in original]” None of them measures how severely or frequently the respondent was bullied, so there could be hidden effects here that are worth exploring. It would also be interesting to learn more about how exercise both protects kids from the worst symptoms of bullying and prevents it altogether: It’s natural to expect, after all, that kids who exercise a lot are in better shape and, depending on the form of exercise, might have an easier time finding other kids to hang out with. Both of these might help prevent them from being victimized, or at least reduce the frequency and severity of victimization. 

So this study adds what could be a really important insight to the ongoing debate over how to tackle bullying, but there’s still a lot we don’t know.