Taking Part in Adapted Sports Improves Mental Health, Study Finds

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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sports and mental health

Among people with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and other neuromuscular disorders, participation in adapted sports is associated with greater self-esteem, lesser depression, and a better quality of life, a study shows.

The study, “Psychosocial impact of sport activity in neuromuscular disorders,” was published in Neurological Sciences.

Exercise has well-established benefits for physical health (e.g., increased muscle strength and endurance), but being involved in sports can also have mental health benefits. Such activities are often a good way to facilitate friendships and interpersonal bonding.

There isn’t a lot of published scientific research concerning people with physical disabilities and participation in sports, and most research to date has focused on its physical effects.

In this study, researchers set out to determine how being involved in sports — which included wheelchair hockey and tennis, swimming, and disability gymnastics — affected mental health in people with genetic neuromuscular disorders (conditions that affect the nervous and muscular systems).

Standardized questionnaires assessing self-esteem, quality of life, activities of daily living, anxiety, depression and a questionnaire to assess personality traits (such as socialization or social confidence), to 38 disabled athletes. Of them, 12 had SMA (type 2 or type 3) and 26 had various muscular dystrophies. Their average age was 27.3; there were 32 males and six females.

“It is worth of mention that some of our patients practised sport having total or severe disability and using power wheelchair with joystick controller,” the researchers noted. “Nevertheless they, young or adult, were strongly engaged in high-level competitions, getting back feelings of pride and satisfaction.”

For comparison, the same questionnaires were given to a group of 39 non-athletes with the same conditions. Both groups were similar in terms of demographic factors including age, sex, marital status, education, and extent of disability (as measured by the modified Barthel Index).

Compared to the non-athlete group, athletes had significantly higher scores on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, which as its name suggests, measures self-esteem (31.5 vs. 28.3). Athletes also had significantly higher scores in the ‘mental health,’ ‘vitality,’ and ‘role physical’ domains of the 36-Item Short-Form Questionnaire, which measures quality of life (QoL) across multiple domains. For both these scales, higher scores indicate better self-esteem or QoL.

Interestingly, both self-esteem and QoL measures were significantly inversely correlated with age among non-athletes. That is, for individuals not involved in sport, self-esteem and QoL scores tended to be lower (worse) with increasing age. However, this association was not found among athletes, suggesting that sport could help ease the mental health toll that aging takes.

Both athletes and non-athletes scored relatively low on the Beck Depression Inventory (low scores indicate less depression), but scores were significantly lower among athletes (5.1 vs. 8.3).

Athletes also scored significantly lower on the ‘Lie/Social Desirability’ domain of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire revised version (EPQ/R-L). This assesses the personality traits of a person and measures an individual’s tendency to lie or act disingenuously in order to feel liked or to conform to social expectations.

“Lower EPQ/R-L score found in patients practising sport are consistent with higher social own identity, better social adherence and self efficacy, suggesting the development of a firmer self-concept and a lower fear of social judgement,” the researchers wrote.

“The sports context resulted as being extremely important for disabled individuals, assisting them in finding opportunities to experiment with new challenges, evaluate their own capabilities, gain confidence and a positive vision of their own corporeality, as well as experiment successful situations when exposed to social evaluations.”

It should be emphasized that this study’s findings are correlation, not causation. That is, although associations were drawn, the data do not directly support a cause-and-effect relationship — while it’s possible that participation in sports improves mental health, it’s equally plausible that people with better self-esteem are more likely to engage in sport.

“The results of our study support the sport practice as a complementary therapy to improve mental and social well-being, and encourage further studies on this topic,” the researchers concluded.