Physical Fitness in Childhood May ‘Vaccinate’ Against Suicide Later in Life

Posted on December 1st, 2013
Posted in Depression

Physical Fitness in Childhood May ‘Vaccinate’ Against Suicide Later in LifeIt should come as no surprise that taking good care of yourself physically can have a positive impact on your mental health. Poor health, physical pain and chronic illness have all been understood as risk factors for depression and other mental illnesses for some time. A recent study, however, helps make a case for good habits developed during childhood having positive impacts in adulthood.

The Study

The study was conducted in Sweden and involved an examination of military data and public records. The study size was very large: over 1 million records, representing over 1 million men, were examined. The researchers studied these records and were able to determine from the data gathered on men born between 1950 and 1987 that doing poorly on physical fitness tests (those administered to men entering military service) led to a higher risk of either making a suicide attempt or completing a suicide. In addition, men who had lower scores on cognitive tests also were at higher risk for attempting or completing a suicide. Specifically, poor cardiovascular fitness was correlated with higher risk.

Because the initial information regarding physical fitness at age 18 was gleaned from military entrance exams, men who had been diagnosed with any mental illness were excluded from this study. This is an important part of the research because it is well known that having a diagnosed mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder are risk factors in increasing the chances of a suicide attempt or death by suicide. That those men were excluded from this study and the study focused exclusively on men without a diagnosed mental illness helps to make the argument for a link between poor physical fitness and suicidality even stronger.

The study was limited to gathering information from the military records, national registers of illness and death notices. This means that specific information about how these men, prior to age 18, were able to achieve their physical fitness was not available. This may make a difference, as physical fitness itself might not have been the protective factor, but perhaps social connection, membership on a team, or having a sense of self-esteem or identity from participation in a sport may have all contributed to the lack of suicidality later in life.

The Implications

One important implication for parents to note is the connection between fitness before age 18 and the protection this may offer much later in life. Helping children enjoy being active and physically fit while still children and adolescents may have benefits beyond the obvious physical ones. The possibility this study suggests is that maintaining physical fitness and specifically cardiovascular fitness through childhood and adolescence may “vaccinate” children against suicide later in life.

However, the results of the study cannot necessarily be applied to women. The study included only men and the results therefore are applicable only to men. Women may show the same trend, but there may be important differences that would impact the results of such a study for women. So until a similar study reviews the data on women, the linkage for women between fitness and suicide is unknown.

Family Fitness

For many, fitness is a family affair. Children tend to have an activity level similar to their parents: active adults tend to raise active children. How can you get started if you’d like to develop better habits?

  • Hit the Internet. Most rail trails, hiking clubs, mall-walkers, and other informal, free, and local opportunities have a website with details, directions and advice for getting started.
  • Walk as much and as often as possible. Walk to get your mail, walk your children to the bus stop, park you car farther from the door to the grocery store and walk the extra few feet. Walk a full lap in the grocery store before you start shopping. Pressed for time? Walk that lap (indoors and air conditioned!) faster.
  • Take classes. Most libraries, cooperative extensions and continuing education departments at local colleges offer inexpensive classes for all sorts of activities. Not interested in walking, running, or other outdoorsy activities? Try fencing, chi gung, yoga, or any number of other indoor (no bugs!) sports or active hobbies.
  • Make it a practice each summer when the kids are home from school to try something you’ve never tried before. Rock climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, or fishing—demonstrate an open attitude toward trying new things. You may help your child find a lifelong hobby, and you’re likely to have fun along the way!

Plan vacations around being active. Take your family vacation in a place that offers a wide variety of outdoor options, and sample widely.

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