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Physical Activity, Recreation, Leisure, and Sport: Essential Pieces of the Mental Health and...

Key Message

Leisure activities and contexts provide a myriad of opportunities for taking better care of one’s self, coping with and managing challenging life circumstances, affirming one’s value, (re)discovering strengths and abilities, and having a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Moreover, because of the freedom to be self-determined in leisure and the opportunities it affords to experience positive emotions—such pleasure, joy, meaning, purpose—leisure may be a powerful resource for recovering from and self-managing mental health problems and addictions. (p 27)


Hutchinson, Susan L. (2011). Physical Activity, Recreation, Leisure, and Sport: Essential Pieces of the Mental Health and Well-being Puzzle. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Recreation Nova Scotia.


A selective review strategy was employed. Three academic databases were used for all searches: PsycINFO, Cinahl and SportDiscus. The search was narrowed to include only periodicals (peer reviewed academic journals) published between1995- 2011. Key words were used to conduct the searches within the three databases; Searches were conducted separately for evidence of the relationships between PARLS and mental health and well- being outcomes for each of the following populations: children and youth, families and community, adults, older adults, and persons with mental illness or addictions. In addition, books and books chapters which describe evidence of the developmental benefits of play were reviewed.

Within each of these broad population groups, searches focused on identifying evidence related to mental health benefits, developmental benefits, risks, barriers, and “best practice” examples. Further, these same categories were used to examine evidence related to different types of free time activity participation (e.g., physical activity). A list of potentially relevant articles was generated for each combination of search words (e.g., children, recreation, mental health development). Abstracts for each potential article were reviewed; from this, lists of references were generated and articles which appeared to be most relevant for this report were obtained. Appendix A provides an overview of the search words used and numbers of relevant articles identified within each search. Evidence from key articles reviewed is summarized in the report.


Children and Youth:

Structured activities are considered to be developmentally beneficial because they provide adolescents with opportunities to:

acquire and practice specific social, physical and intellectual skills that may be useful in a variety of settings, including school;
• contribute to the well-being of their community and to develop a sense of personal responsibility as a member of that community;
• belong to a socially recognized and valued social group; • establish supportive social networks of both peers and adults that can help in the
present as well as the future; and • experience and deal with challenges.

Structured activity settings in the community also provide opportunities to have exposure to conventional social values, form relationships with non-deviant peers and increase skills and competence.
Beyond its developmental benefits, involvement in structured “active” free time or school- based extracurricular activities is associated with better overall mental health, lower levels of depressed mood, and higher levels of positive affect. (p 8)

Families and Community:

In dual-parent families there is evidence that family leisure pursuits can be important vehicles for communicating and reinforcing family values and for promoting family cohesion and adaptability (e.g., Zabriskie & McCormick, 2001). Although single-parent families report less shared family time together, the times that are spent together still contribute to family cohesion and adaptability (Hornberger, Zabriskie & Freeman, 2010). For families who experienced divorce, shared family leisure was important as a positive source of distraction from immediate stressors, provided a sense of “normalcy” in the midst of changes in family structure, gave families something to look forward to, and helped create new family rituals which in turn created a sense of belonging and identity as a family; taken together shared leisure was an important resource for coping with stress and an essential component of family resilience. (p 15)

Adults and Older Adults:

Lower levels of depression are associated with various forms of moderate to vigorous exercise and strength training (Adams, Moore & Dye, 2007; Strawbridge, Deleger, Roberts & Kaplan, 2002), as well as other forms of physical activity such as yoga (Netz & Lidor, 2003) and dance (Hui, Chui, & Woo, 2009). Reduced anxiety is also associated with physical activities (e.g., yoga) and strength training exercises (Adams et al.). Conversely, adults with poor mental health are less active, both in terms of physical activity as well as other leisure pursuits, than those with better mental health (Breslin, Franche, Mustard, & Lin, 2006; Lawlor & Hopker, 2001; Phillips, Kiernan, & King, 2003; Winjaele et al., 2007). Leisure-time physical activity has also been associated with reduced job strain; Yang et al. (2010) found that participants who reported persistent physical inactivity over nine years had a higher risk of job strain and lower sense of control over their jobs than those who reported participation in leisure-time physical activity.
Positive mental health and subjective well-being is associated with other active forms of leisure pursuits, such as hobbies, crafts, reading and music. (pp 17 -18)

Persons with Mental Illness and Addictions:

There is substantial evidence that exercise is effective in alleviating symptoms of depression, that exercise is as effective as most traditional treatments, and that exercise is effective across genders (Craft & Landers, 1998). Moreover, the type, frequency, and intensity of exercise do not appear to moderate the effect; in other words any efforts to get people who are depressed more physically active will help them combat their depression. In order to understand the “antidepressant” effects of exercise, Craft (2005) examined the effects of exercise (moderate intensity exercise program three times a week) on coping self-efficacy and depression. She found that exercise contributed to increased perceptions of coping self-efficacy (beliefs in one’s abilities to cope with stress) and this in turn was associated with lower depression. (p 24)

Leisure or recreation activities are increasingly viewed as an important component of healthy lifestyle behaviours; Together with coping/spiritual and substance recovery activities these behaviours can prevent or reduce relapse rates. (p 25). For persons living with enduring mental health problems, leisure pursuits (including volunteering and participation in learning activities) provided opportunities to experience a sense of achievement, have a sense of purpose or structure to their days, build skills, be productive, socialize with others and develop self-identities separate from mental illness. Mee et al. noted that the availability of a safe and flexible (e.g., clubhouse or sheltered workshop) environment allowed the participants to exercise a sense of control and self- determination. (p 26)

Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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