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HomeWellnessMental HealthDo Childhood Health Behaviours Lead to Internalizing Disorders?

Do Childhood Health Behaviours Lead to Internalizing Disorders?

Researchers in Canada examined whether childhood health behaviours predicted a later diagnosis of adolescent internalizing disorders.

Mental health continues to be a burden across the globe. Approximately one in four people will experience one or more episodes of poor mental health in their lifetime. Half of all cases of poor mental health occur during adolescence. Left untreated or undiagnosed, these cases could develop more severe mental health challenges in adulthood including internalizing disorders. Internalizing disorders include anxiety, depression, or mood disorders among others.

To further define the relationships between lifestyle, diet quality, physical activity, sedentary behaviours and mental health, Canadian researchers linked data from a population-based lifestyle survey among 10 and 11-year-old students in Nova Scotia with later physician diagnoses of internalizing disorders in adolescents. The results were recently published in the BMC Psychology.

There were 4,875 students who completed surveys and provided valid health card numbers to be linked with administrative health data. Such information includes demographic characteristics, attending physicians, diagnoses and procedures rendered. Patients were considered to have an internalizing disorder diagnosis based on the International Classification of Diseases by a physician. The study also recorded other variables that could influence the results such as gender, household income, residential location, body weight status, and self-esteem. The researchers focused on health behaviours such as diet quality, physical activity, and sedentary habits.

Childhood Health Behaviours Impact Adolescent Mental Health

Of the 4,875 subjects, 1,164 (23.9%) were diagnosed with internalizing disorders. Girls experienced more internalizing disorder diagnoses compared with boys. The proportion of students diagnosed with internalizing disorders was higher among students who reported lower physical activity, were from low-income households and attended school in urban areas. More crucially, however, were the aspects of diet and physical activity, or lack thereof. Mental health issues were more frequent among those who reported less physical activity, had less variety in their diets and played more video games or other screen time. These associations were independent of socio-demographic factors and are indicative of the impact of health behaviours in the development of internalizing disorders during adolescence.

The strength of this study lies in its large sample size linked with professional administrative health data and the implications of potential outside influences. This research suggests that diet and lifestyle choices such as physical activity levels and sedentary behaviours in childhood can affect mental health in adolescence.  Future youths could benefit greatly from health promotion outreach aimed at a healthy diet and positive physical activity behaviours.

Written by Cooper Powers, BSc


(1) Kessler RC, Aguilar-Gaxiola S, Alonso J, Chatterji S, Lee S, Ormel J, et al. The global burden of mental disorders: an update from the WHO world mental health (WMH) surveys. Epidemiological Psychiatric Sociology. 2009;18(1):23–33.
(2) Wu, X.Y., Kirk, S.F.L., Ohinmaa, A., Veugelers, P.J. (2017). The importance of health behaviors in childhood for the development of internalizing disorders during adolescence. BMC Psychology, 5(38). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29233173



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