WASHINGTON -- College students who play varsity or intramural sports are less likely to consider or attempt suicide, a federal study has found.
"There are a lot of benefits that can be attributed to sports, and lower odds of suicidal behavior is one of them," said researcher David R. Brown.
Team sports can provide a healing social environment, but another factor may be that athletes better handle emotional stress, Brown said.
He co-authored the national study with fellow researcher Curtis J. Blanton at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their survey was published in the July issue of the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal.
They culled data from 4,728 questionnaires collected by the National College Health Risk Behavior Survey of undergraduates.
Respondents were characterized as suicidal if they indicated they had seriously thought about, planned or attempted suicide within the past 12 months.
Men who did not play sports were 2.5 times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts or behavior, the report said. Of 1,363 men with no participation in sports, 12.54 percent were considered suicidal. Of 428 men who did play sports, the figure was 7.27 percent.
Women who were not on varsity or intramural teams had a 67 percent greater risk of suicidal thoughts or actions in the past 12 months, the report said. Of 286 women in sports, 8.57 percent were considered suicidal, compared with 12.03 percent of 2,614 women who were not on teams.
The survey did not examine possible reasons for the connections between sports and mental health, but Brown said there are several.
Being on a team, in the company of coaches and other athletes, provides a network of social support, Brown said. And, exercise has long been prescribed as an antidote to depression, which can lead to thoughts of suicide, he said.
The study also looked at the potential benefits of being physically active without belonging to a team. Those findings were less clear.
Men who were not on a team but who engaged in at least some exercise were 50 percent less likely to think or act on suicidal thoughts then were men who were sedentary.
But, in a surprise to researchers, they could not establish a reduced risk among men who were moderately or vigorously active. The statistics showed indications of a risk reduction, but they were not strong enough to be considered reliable. Brown suspected that greater exercise does reduce risk but that his project was not precise enough to spot it.
Among women who were physically active, the relationship was opposite to that of men. Minimal exercise did not appear to affect suicide risks. But the likelihood of suicidal thoughts or actions went up in women who engaged in moderate or vigorous activity.
Brown suspected that the higher risk of suicidal thoughts or actions among women who were more physically active may be partly an outgrowth of compulsive thinness in some women. Intense exercise to burn off weight is a characteristic of anorexia, which also has been linked to thoughts of suicide.
Exercise advocates have said for years that almost everyone who participates in some form of exercise improves his or her mental state, and the overall findings of this study tend to support the claim, said Dr. Douglas McKeag, chairman of the family medicine department at Indiana University.
The study provides valuable leads, said sports psychologist William F. Morgan of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. But it was only designed to show associations, and cannot prove that sports participation changes suicidal tendencies, he said.
On the Net:
Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: http://www.ms-se.com
CDC Center for the Advancement of Health: http://www.cfah.org/home.cfm
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.