Physical Activity & Mental Health

A Scoping Review of the Effects of Physical Activity on Mental Health Outcomes in Children and Adolescents (0-18 years) with Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Background

A plethora of research has been conducted showing the positive effects of physical activity, exercise, and sport on mental health outcomes (e.g., self-esteem) in typically developing populations (e.g., children, adolescents, and adults). Indeed, several reviews, meta-analyses and reviews of reviews have been conducted over the last three decades on this topic. However, there is evidence that physical activity, exercise, and sport also positively effects mental health outcomes in non-typically developing populations such as those with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) (Developmental Coordination Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Learning Disability, and Intellectual Disability).

Objective

To conduct the first review of the effects of physical activity, exercise, and sport on mental health outcomes (anxiety, depression, self-esteem, self-concept, and self-worth) in children and adolescents with NDDs.

Search Methods

We searched Ovid MEDLINE(R), Embase, PsycINFO, and SPORTDiscus, in addition to reference lists of identified review studies.

Selection criteria

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and experimental non-randomized studies (ENRs) comparing the participation in physical activity, exercise, or sport on mental health outcomes in children and adolescents (0-18 years) with NNDs.

Preliminary results

A total of 63 studies (from 1979 to 2018) were identified. However, 16 of these were observational (15 cross-sectional and 1 cohort study) and, therefore, were excluded from the review. Of the 47 remaining studies, 22 (46.8%) were RCTs and 25 (53.2%) were ERNs. The most studied population was children with Cerebral Palsy (12 RCTs and 6 ERNs). The next most studied populations were children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Developmental Coordination Disorder. Only one RCT and 3 ERN studies were conducted on children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. No studies were found for children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

A scoping review of these findings generally suggests a positive effect of physical activity on mental health outcomes in children and adolescents with NDDs. However, there is limited research on the effects of physical activity on mental health outcomes in specific NDD populations (e.g., Intellectual Disability and Learning Disability). 

Conclusion

Additional research is warranted as mental health issues are more likely exacerbated in children and adolescents with NDDs.