While regular exercise is clearly beneficial to children and adults, the psychosocial health of children may benefit as much from other kinds of after-school programmes, according to researchers at Augusta University in the US.
For the study, published in the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine, the researchers looked at 175 predominantly black children aged between 8 and 11 years who had overweight or obesity and were previously inactive.
The children participated in either a fun-driven aerobic exercise programme or a sedentary after-school programme where they played board games and did artistic activities.
The investigators hypothesised that they would find that the exercise intervention would be more effective at improving quality of life, mood and self-worth than the sedentary programme.
Instead, they found that while the exercise programme had the additional benefits of reducing body fat, improving fitness, and even improved brain health, there was no mood advantage from the exercise programme. Fatness and fitness did not change as much in the sedentary group.
Depressive symptoms in boys, who were in the sedentary group, actually decreased more over time than their peers in the exercise group, according to the study.
About 10 per cent of children in both groups had symptoms indicating depression at the start of the study. Depressive symptoms in children include a sad mood, interpersonal problems and inability to feel pleasure.
Among participating girls, depressive symptoms yielded similar improvements whether in the exercise or sedentary group, said Celestine F Williams, first author of the study.
All the children were evaluated for depressive symptoms, anger expression, self-worth and quality of life. Depressive symptoms and quality of life were measured again about a year later.
In the exercise programme, the instructor led fun aerobic activity for 40 minutes daily based on the interests and abilities of the children. In the other group, children participated in activities like board games, puzzles, arts and music, and were rewarded for participation and good behaviour.
There were arts and crafts, challenging games, guitar music and singing popular songs, and the children were rewarded with points for being nice.
Relationships the children built with each other over the course of both programmes likely were beneficial in elevating their mood and quality of life, Williams said. The sedentary programme may have given children more time to talk with each other and develop friendships with little competitive pressure, he said.