Groups of young people identified who may benefit from tailored exercise programs

By Melanie Hinze

New Australian research has found regular long-term exercise participation, beginning in childhood, is linked with physical and mental health benefits in early adulthood; however, certain groups of young people are at increased risk of failing to establish an exercise regimen.

Published in PLOS ONE, the study authors used data from 9353 participants in the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth (LSAY), a population-representative cohort study of young people from ages 15 to 25 years, to model the evolution of different patterns of self- reported recreational exercise behaviour. This included daily exercise in accordance with public health guidelines, at least once weekly exercise and less than weekly exercise.

At age 25 years, people in the guideline-adherence exercise group reported better general health compared with all other groups. Those in the weekly exercise group reported better general health and lower rates of psychological distress, greater happiness and more optimism about the future compared with those with less than weekly exercise.

‘While a higher level of consistent recreational exercise was associated with superior long-term outcomes across the measured domains, our findings also indicate that young people who increase exercise participation over time to even moderate levels (i.e. once weekly or more) experience advantages compared with those who are consistently inactive or whose participation decreases over time,’ the authors wrote.

However, the authors found that some groups missed out on these benefits disproportionately and might benefit from more tailored exercise-promotion interventions. Females, people with low self-efficacy in schooling performance, those with lower levels of sports participation, those with higher academic achievement, those who spent more time watching TV and those whose parents were experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage were all at risk of failing to establish regular exercise patterns during the transition from adolescence to young adulthood.

‘The value of this research is that it shows, in the largest Australian sample to date, that we can clearly identify different patterns of exercise that emerge early in youth that are associated with worse long-term outcomes,’ study coauthor, Associate Professor Scott Clark, Head of the University of Adelaide’s Discipline of Psychiatry and Consultant Psychiatrist in the Western Community Mental Health Service, Adelaide, told Medicine Today.

‘Only participants who maintained regular exercise from their early youth showed benefit in both physical and mental wellbeing,’ he added.

‘What these findings highlight is that exercise patterns are established at an early age, through primary and early high school, so for GPs there is benefit in providing education and identifying those at risk for intervention.’

Associate Professor Clark explained that exercise was known to increase blood oxygenation and reduce obesity and general inflammation.

‘These processes promote brain plasticity, improving cognitive performance and wellbeing in general,’ he added.

He said that these findings called for policy, beginning in primary school, to improve the engagement of children in regular exercise and then to maintain it.

PLOS ONE 2024; 19(3): e0284660.