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Physical activity and prevalence and incidence of mental disorders in adolescents and young adults


Although positive effects of physical activity on mental health indicators have been reported, the relationship between physical activity and the development of specific mental disorders is unclear.


A cross-sectional (12-month) and prospective-longitudinal epidemiological study over 4 years in a community cohort of 2548 individuals, aged 14–24 years at outset of the study. Physical activity and mental disorders were assessed by the DSM-IV Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI) with an embedded physical activity module. Multiple logistic regression analyses controlling for age, gender and educational status were used to determine the cross-sectional and prospective associations of mental disorders and physical activity.


Cross-sectionally, regular physical activity was associated with a decreased prevalence of any and co-morbid mental disorder, due to lower rates of substance use disorders, anxiety disorders and dysthymia. Prospectively, subjects with regular physical activity had a substantially lower overall incidence of any and co-morbid mental disorder, and also a lower incidence of anxiety, somatoform and dysthymic disorder. By contrast, the incidence of bipolar disorder was increased among those with regular physical activity at baseline. In terms of the population attributable fraction (PAF), the potential for preventive effects of physical activity was considerably higher for men than for women.


Regular physical activity is associated with a substantially reduced risk for some, but not all, mental disorders and also seems to reduce the degree of co-morbidity. Further examination of the evidently complex mechanisms and pathways underlying these associations might reveal promising new research targets and procedures for targeted prevention.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: Andreas Ströhle, M.D., Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Campus Charité Mitte, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Charitéplatz 1, 10117 Berlin, Germany. (Email:
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Psychological Medicine
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