Regular exercise significantly reduces both suicidal thoughts and attempts among high school students who are bullied, according to new research.

OT_News-01Findings were published in the October issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Using data from the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 13,583 high school students, researchers at the University of Vermont in Burlington found being physically active four or more days per week resulted in a 23% reduction in suicidal ideation and attempts in bullied students. Nationwide nearly 20% of students reported being bullied on school property.

Past studies have shown exercise has positive effects on various mental health measures. According to a news release, this is the first study to show a link between physical activity and a reduction in suicidal thoughts and attempts by bullied students, who also are at increased risk for poor academic performance, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, sadness and substance abuse.

Overall, 30% of students in the study reported feeling sad for two or more weeks in the previous year while more than 22% reported suicidal ideation and 8.2% reported actual suicidal attempts during the same time period, researchers found. Bullied students were twice as likely to report sadness, and three times as likely to report suicidal ideation or attempt when compared with peers who were not bullied. Exercise on four or more days per week also was associated with significant reductions in sadness, findings showed.

“I was surprised that it was that significant and that positive effects of exercise extended to kids actually trying to harm themselves,” lead author Jeremy Sibold, EdD, ATC, associate professor and rehabilitation and movement science department chairman at UVM, said in the release. “Even if one kid is protected because we got them involved in an after-school activity or in a physical education program, it’s worth it.”

PE program cuts nationwide

Sibold’s study comes at a time when 44% of the nation’s school administrators have cut significant amounts of time from physical education, arts and recess so that more time could be devoted to reading and mathematics since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. The same report showed the percentage of schools offering physical education daily or at least three days a week has declined dramatically between 2001 and 2006.

About half of America’s youth meet the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s evidence-based guideline calling for at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity each day, according to the release. In its biennial survey of high school students across the nation, the CDC reported nearly half said they had no physical education classes in an average week.

“It’s scary and frustrating that exercise isn’t more ubiquitous and that we don’t encourage it more in schools,” Sibold said in the release. “Instead, some kids are put on medication and told ‘good luck.’ If exercise reduces sadness, suicide ideation and suicide attempts, then why in the world are we cutting physical education programs and making it harder for students to make athletic teams at such a critical age?”

Sibold co-authored the study with UVM colleagues Erika Edwards, PhD, research assistant professor in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences; Dianna Murray-Close, PhD, associate professor in psychology; and psychiatry professor James J. Hudziak, MD, who has published extensively on the positive effects of exercise on mental health outcomes. The researchers said they hope their paper increases the consideration of exercise programs as part of the public health approach to reduce suicidal behavior in all adolescents.

“Considering the often catastrophic and long-lasting consequences of bullying in school-aged children, novel, accessible interventions for victims of such conduct are sorely needed,” they wrote in the study.

Study abstract: